The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Thirteen
 

 

Chapter Six 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chapter Eight 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Chapter Ten

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Chapter Twelve 


 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
 

TEMPTATION

    Brydon was seated on a fallen log with his back against a tree, on watch, when he saw Sellaris stir from sleep.  He watched a pale hand splay over the blankets for a moment and then dragged his eyes back to a casual survey of the slumbering encampment.  He knew there was no danger, but with Reed an unknown factor it paid to be alert.  His eyes returned to Sellaris, who sat up and then got to her feet and glanced around.  Looking for me, he suspected.  She had been untied for the past couple of days after she had given her word that she would neither leave nor aid the others in escape.  They had decided to stay for a few days in order to give Alyn a chance to recover from her concussion or whatever ailed her.

    Sellaris crouched and prodded at the fire, but he knew her eyes scanned the trees, searching for any sign of movement that would give away his presence.  Brydon stayed where he was, out of the rain under a large leafy tree.  He turned his attention to the horses that were mostly huddled together.  Darkling, instead of sleeping, followed Toryn’s mare around and around a tree at a very slow pace, as if herding her.  Brydon knew when Fang tired of it she would lash out at him with a hoof and that would be the end of the herding.

    It did not take Sellaris long to find him.  She sat down beside him, but said nothing for a long while.  He refrained from looking at her and kept his attention on the horses.  He had already memorized every plane of her face and every curve of her body even though he wished he had not.  During the past days of waiting there had had little to do but watch her.

    “This country is depressing,” Sellaris said finally. “Rain, rain, rain.”

    “I thought it rained often in Bodor,” Brydon said quietly.

    “Yes, but it isn’t a dark, cold rain like this.  Usually, the sun is still out.  It is not swampy and muddy, either.  The trees grow so tall and thick in some areas that the rain hardly reaches the ground.  It is warm in Bodor, too.  Not like here.  I hate the cold.”

    Brydon was silent.  She would not do well in Falara, where snow blanketed the ground much of the year.  She looked at him once, but he did not meet her eyes.  His head rested against the trunk of the tree.  From the corner of his eye he saw her teeth worry her lower lip for a moment.

    Before she could speak, Brydon asked, “What do you know about Reed’s powers?”

    “Do you see me only as a fount of information?”

    “No,” he replied and forced his gaze away from her lips.  He did not elaborate and she sighed.

    “We did not discover Reed’s abilities for a long while.  In fact, it was not until we displeased him that we discovered how powerful he was.  A particularly fine mare sickened and died while we were moving her to Bodor.  There was nothing we could do for the horse—what does anyone outside of Akarska know of horse illnesses?”  She spoke bitterly, as though still plagued by the incident.

    “When we met up with Reed, he was furious.  The next thing we knew, Garyn and Lavan were writhing on the ground, clutching their heads in pain while Reed watched them intently.  I did not know what he was doing to them, but I grabbed my dagger and slashed at him.  He deflected the blow and earned himself a gash on the forearm, but then he was in my mind.”

    She was silent and a pained expression crossed her face.  Brydon could only imagine what the experience had been like.  His lips thinned at the memory of Reed.

    “I fought back,” she went on, “of course.  My efforts were nothing to Reed, but it seemed to impress him that I had even limited power.  He halted the attack.  Shortly thereafter, he sent Garyn and Lavan on a mission, but took me with him to Silver.  He said he required my help.  In reality, we spent three weeks in a villa in one of the principalities of Silver while he tried to teach me about my powers.  He refused to tell me where they came from, although I think he knows.  He seems frustrated that my abilities are not like his—I cannot do even half the things he can.”  She reached into her shirt and pulled out the green crystal.  It looked like a black shard in the darkness.

    “He gave me this.  It augments my skill somehow—it helps me to focus and maintain my mental shield—defense from people like you.”  She smiled shortly.  “It also protects me from intrusion by Reed, though I’m certain that was not his original intent.”  She tucked the crystal back inside her blouse.

    “Reed has the ability to converse mentally with anyone, unless they have the power to block him and I have not found many people with that talent.  He can also will himself elsewhere—he calls it ‘stepping’—but I am not sure if more than mere willpower is required for that.  He seems to need his crystal to ‘step’, or perhaps the stone simply makes it easier for him.  That is all I know of his abilities, but he can most likely do things he has never shown me.  I am merely a convenience to him—he does not trust me.”

    Brydon wondered about her relationship with Reed—were they lovers?  It seemed likely even though the idea made him cringe.  Her information had given him little insight into Reed’s powers and motivations, and in turn gave him no information about his own abilities.  Sellaris had not elaborated on her powers and he wondered whether his talents compared more with hers or Reed’s.  He would have to search for answers—Reed had attained knowledge from somewhere and Brydon was determined to discover it as well.

    Sellaris turned to him.  “What is Falara like?” she asked.

    He wondered briefly what she really wanted.  She was not at all the type to make small talk.  He stared up at the treetops and allowed his gaze to unfocus as he remembered.

    “It is cold, usually,” he said at last.  “Falara has high mountains, deep snow, clear water, and tall trees.  The air is clean and pure and makes your lungs ache in the winter.  There is a mountain near Eaglecrest called Phantom Peak.  Most of the time it is invisible, hidden by clouds.  Superstitious folk say it’s not even real, that it is a place of magic that appears in response to portents.  Many times you can see only the top of it, floating above a blanket of clouds, even on the clearest day.  It’s breathtaking.  Falara is a beautiful place.”

    “And the women?  Are they beautiful also?”  Her voice was bland.

    “Of course.  There are lovely women everywhere.  One has but to look.”

    “And do you?  Look for lovely women?” she whispered huskily.  She leaned toward him and his eyes swung to hers.  A mistake.  Her dark red hair was tangled, the curls in disarray, but it only added to her wild beauty.  Her grey eyes were shadowy slashes in the darkness and her lips were full, slightly parted as she awaited his response.

    Brydon could not answer.  He was overcome with the desire to kiss her and gave in to it with a soft groan, bending down to touch his lips to hers.  Her arms went around his neck and she returned his kiss with a passion that quickened his blood and sent his pulse racing.  When he broke away, a long while later, he looked at her and saw the brightness of the hidden stars shining in her eyes.  Droplets of rain, still falling, glistened in her hair.  She did not turn away.

    “I am drawn to you,” she said in a breathy voice.  “I don’t know why, but you are beautiful and perfect and I want you.”

    Brydon could not breathe for a moment and wished her words had not placed a weight upon his heart.  He wanted to believe she lied, that she sat with him for some sinister purpose of her own, but he could read the truth in her eyes.  “You know this cannot be.”

    “Anything can be, if we make it so,” she insisted and pulled him down for another kiss.

    Brydon knew he should leave her immediately and the reasons clamored in his mind:  his Quest, the princess, the kingdom; but they were swept away by the fierce surge of desire that overcame him.  His hands caressed her slim form while hers curled in his hair and slid over his shoulders.

    He felt her bare skin beneath the soft leather of her shirt and she gasped at the feel of his cold hand on her warm flesh, but she did not pull away.

    “Brydon,” she murmured.  She trailed kisses across his neck until her breath was hot in his ear.

    “What sorcery is this?” Brydon asked as her hands slipped under his shirt, tracking fire across his back.

    “No sorcery,” Sellaris breathed, “Just desire.”

    Brydon captured her lips again and surrendered to it.

    “Was she trying to escape, Brydon?” Toryn’s amused voice asked.

    Brydon snatched away from her as if burned and looked at Toryn, who leaned against a tree some distance away, smiling a smirk that Brydon had suddenly come to hate.  Sellaris turned away from them both, panting.

    “What do you want?” Brydon asked, a bit more harshly than he intended.

    “It is my turn to take watch, remember?” Toryn said mildly.

    Brydon turned to ask Sellaris to return to camp, but she had disappeared into the trees.

    “Thanks, Toryn,” Brydon snapped, still flushed.

    “I was just thinking of your poor princess up in Falara, pining away for your return.  You are not giving up the Quest, are you?”

    The taunt was akin to cold water.  Brydon drew himself up as the heat on his cheeks began to cool.  “Of course not,” he snapped.

    Toryn shrugged.  “Just wondering.”  He grinned, obviously pleased to have caught Brydon doing something less than noble.

    Brydon growled and stalked back to camp.  Once there, he saw that Sellaris had returned to her brother’s side and feigned sleep.  He sighed and dropped to his own blankets.  He pulled his vest over his head as protection from the rain.  Once there, guilt overcame him like a smothering hood.  How could he have almost…?  When he thought of what was at stake, he shuddered.  He could not let something as base as lust come between him and his honor.  He wondered if Toryn had been sent to him from Adona to prevent him from abandoning his Quest in a moment of weakness.  Sellaris was beautiful and desirable, but she was also mercenary and self-serving.  He thanked Adona for the clarity of thought that returned to him and pledged to thank Toryn on the morrow.

    Rain dripped from his vest down the back of his neck and he shifted in his blankets to try and get more comfortable. Sellaris was right, he reflected.  It was a miserable country.


    Before he woke the next morning, Brydon had a strange dream.  In the dream, he was some sort of beast, a wolf perhaps, or a hunting cat.  He stalked through the dew-wet undergrowth, picking up the faint scents of a jungle buck. Excitement tingled through him as the scent grew stronger and he knew he was getting close.  The thought of tearing his fangs into the buck’s thick neck made his mouth water.  He could almost taste the hot blood.

    He froze when his ears picked up a noise and then he crept forward silently and peered through the foliage.  A large buck stood a few feet away, carelessly nibbling on a bush and swatting its short tail at the swamp bugs out in the early morning’s light.  It had a dusky brown-green coat with darker mottling as camouflage, useless, he thought with satisfaction.  The buck’s horns were straight, spiraling up from the skull.  A young buck, then.  Perfect.

    Brydon crouched and his tail twitched softly.  The buck, as if sensing danger, lifted its head in alarm.  Brydon sprang. The buck leaped, but too late.  His claws fastened into the buck’s flesh and an instant later his teeth found its neck.  There was a dreadful ripping and Brydon felt blood gush over his teeth and tongue.  The buck leaped high into the air and came down in a crumpled heap.  Brydon held on until he was certain the buck was dead.  Then he carefully detached his teeth and sat back on his haunches.  He felt a sudden lurching sensation, so unexpected that he started awake violently, but his mind caught something in the fleeting instant before total consciousness.

    “Davin?” he burst out as he sat up.

    Those awake looked at him questioningly.

    “He is on watch,” Verana said as she wrapped Garyn’s scratch-wounds with herb-soaked bandages.  The brown-haired man had removed his woolen shirt and sat patiently beneath her ministrations.  Garyn seemed healthy and strong other than his wounds.  He was shorter and more muscular than Toryn, but his features looked open and honest.  Brydon had not formed a firm opinion about him.  Sellaris was talking to Lavan, who looked happy as a rabid wolf, as usual.  It was hard to believe they were even related.  Lavan’s mouth seemed set in a perpetual snarl and the hard glare made the handsome planes of his face look hard and cruel.  He reminded Brydon of the spoiled sons of arrogant nobles he had encountered as a boy, the type that felt the world owed them a boon for merely existing.

    Sellaris locked gazes with Brydon and she flushed slightly before she turned back to Lavan.  Did she regret the previous night, Brydon wondered?  Had it even been real, or had she just been toying with him?  He shrugged off the thoughts irritably and remembered his resolution to have nothing further to do with her.

    He got up and mentally searched for Davin.  He quickly located him and went into the forest.  Surprisingly, it was not raining.

    Davin looked up when Brydon approached.  He was bent over the body of a buck, the same buck Brydon had seen in his dream.  Davin efficiently gutted it with his dagger.

    “You killed it with a knife?” Brydon asked casually.  Davin was silent for a moment and then shrugged.

    “No.  A jungle cat killed it.  The beast fled when I approached.  Possibly the same one that attacked Garyn yesterday.”

    Brydon nodded thoughtfully.  “We should take it back to camp before the cat returns.”

    Davin’s smile seemed forced.  “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
    Brydon helped the silver-haired man drag the animal and wondered if he had accidentally projected his mind into that of the cat’s and next into Davin’s.  Somehow, he knew it had not happened that way.

    Toryn was ecstatic to see the buck and immediately set about preparing venison for the cook pot, excitedly rifling through Verana’s supplies.  Alyn opened her eyes for a few moments, drank some of Verana’s tea, and went back to sleep.  The Akarskan girl had done little but sleep during the past few days.  When she was awake she seemed groggy and uncertain.  Verana told them her behavior was the result of her head wound and should be temporary.

    “How long do you intend to keep us tied?” Lavan demanded when Brydon approached.  “I thought you agreed to free us.”

    “I agreed,” Brydon replied.  “I did not say when.”  He was surprised that Sellaris had kept her word and not released Garyn and her brother.  They were most likely amazed, as well.

    “Then when?  What are you waiting for?”

    “I am waiting,” Brydon said, “to see if Reed returns for you.”

    “He won’t,” Garyn protested.  “We have already told you.”

    Brydon ignored the complaint.  He was not in a generous frame of mind, even though he knew that wrestling with his conscience over Sellaris had caused his black mood.

    “Where will you go from here, Brydon?” Verana asked when he returned to the fire with his fletching supplies.  During their days of relative inactivity, Brydon had worked to maintain his supplies, mending clothing and honing his weapons.  “Will you return Alyn to her own people before you continue your journey?”

    Brydon shook his head.  “I expect Toryn will escort Alyn back to Akarska.  I will continue on to Kaneelis with you and Toryn can return to Redol once Alyn is safely back with her people.”

    The Redolian glared at him, knife stilling over the roots he held.  “No,” Toryn said flatly.  “I am not going back to Adona-forsaken Akarska for any reason.  Besides, I said I would stay with you.”

    Brydon blinked at him.  He had expected Toryn to accompany him only as far as the Waryn Highway, a place they would no longer reach on their current path.  “I release you from your vow.”

    “You cannot.”

    Brydon scowled, wondering what game the Redolian played now.  He had been trying to escape Brydon’s company for days on end and now that Brydon released him, he chose to stay.  It was baffling.  Before he could respond, Verana made an exasperated sound.  “Alyn cannot return to Akarska by herself in her current condition!  If you refuse to return her to her people, then I suggest you all accompany me to Kaneelis where she can be healed in the Temple.  It would be an ideal place to release Sellaris, Garyn, and Lavan, or turn them over to the authorities, as you choose.  I am sure they will find it preferable to leaving them here in the swamp without horses.”  Her amber eyes sparkled.  After days in the mud and muck, Verana still looked as fresh as a spring flower.  Her pale blue robes were clean but for the mud-spattered hem.  Her black hair was neatly braided and bedecked with beads and garlands of flowery vines whose colors contrasted brightly with her dark skin.

    “You would leave us without horses?” Lavan exclaimed, apparently eavesdropping on their conversation.  Brydon wondered that the obnoxious man was kin to Sellaris.   Aside from their coloring, they seemed little alike.  It was odd that Sellaris had some of Reed’s abilities while her brother had none.  Brydon had asked her about it.

    “I don’t know,” she had replied tersely.  Brydon’s eyes had narrowed, sensing a lie.  Perhaps the mystique surrounding her contributed to his attraction.  He glared at her brother now.

    “I think you have been mounted so long you have forgotten that most people walk,” Verana said sharply.  “The horses are not legally yours, or has it slipped your mind that they were stolen?”

    Lavan flushed angrily and looked away.

    “Is it agreed, then?  We go to Kaneelis?” Brydon asked.  “Davin, you have accompanied us this far.  Will you join us?”

    There was a wild, hunted look on Davin’s face for a moment, and then it was gone as he nodded.

    “If you will have me,” he said.

    “All right.  Then we go to Kaneelis and decide further from there.”

    While the others prepared to break camp, Brydon thought it wise to search the dead bandits’ belongings and take anything that might be useful.  Sellaris had already claimed her items and those of her brother and Garyn.  Davin and Brydon had given everything else a cursory search, taking the blankets, some clothing, and cooking utensils, but most of it had been left untouched.  It had disturbed Brydon to sort through the possessions of the dead men, but now it was either take what they had left or leave them behind. 

    Earlier, Toryn and Davin had dragged the bodies of the two men to a quick-mud area and let the earth suck them down.  Brydon felt chagrined that they had not burned the bodies as was proper, but he supposed they had not really deserved a suitable funeral for what they had done to Alyn.  Apparently, she had tried to escape and the one called Snip had hit her on the head—a bit too hard—which had resulted in prolonged unconsciousness and her present befuddled state.

    They had tossed the packs in an out-of-the-way area, so Brydon beckoned Sellaris over to assist him.  “Which are Reed’s belongings?” he asked.

    Sellaris gestured vaguely.  Brydon walked to where a small leather pack had been haphazardly tossed near a tree.  Brydon picked it up and dumped the contents as he knelt down to examine them.  There was no clothing.  It seemed Reed had not planned to remain long with Sellaris and the others.  Brydon found a ruby-encrusted golden dagger in a tooled-leather sheath that looked more ornamental than useful.  He set it aside and sorted through the miscellanea, searching for some clue as to Reed’s personality.  Where had the man come from?  The remains of a large piece of cheese and some stale bread were wrapped in oiled leather. Near that was a length of thin, coiled rawhide, perhaps surplus in case of broken straps and emergency repairs.  A small flask of brandy was concealed by an ornate, oiled leather case.  Inside the case were several small packets of what looked like herbs and powders.  Medicines?  The remaining items were odds and ends such as a metal cup and measuring spoon.

    Sellaris knelt and went through the packs of Flord and Snip.  She set aside a few items and waited for him to finish.

    “Do you need any of this?” he asked, gesturing to Reed’s belongings.

    She shook her head.  “If Reed wanted any of it, he should not have left it.  I have no intention of taking it to him.”

    “Then you don’t mind if I take this?”  He held up the dagger.

    She looked at it with narrowed eyes.  “I’ve never seen it before.”

    Brydon thought it made sense to conceal a jeweled dagger when you consorted with thieves, but he said nothing.  About to attach the dagger to his belt, he reconsidered.  It would make a fine gift to Toryn, who had been ogling Brydon’s matching sword and dagger during their journey.  He glanced over at the Redolian, who was immersed in an argument with Davin over the proper way to stow cooking items.  Brydon stuffed the dagger deep into his pack so he could surprise Toryn with it later.

    He picked up the flask and the case with the herb packets, assuming Verana or Toryn would likely be able to use them.  The rest of the items he shoved back into the pack to give to Davin, who had nothing of his own.  Davin had traded his filthy rags for some of the clothing that had belonged to the dead men, but it was scarcely an improvement.  Reed’s leather pack, at least, was in good condition.

    Sellaris stood and gave Brydon a secretive smile, making his eyes narrow suspiciously and wonder what she was up to.  He would have to watch her—not that it was a difficult chore.

    Alyn was semi-conscious, awake enough to stay mounted, although Brydon doubted anyone but a native Akarskan could manage such a feat.  They loaded the gear onto the horses and moved out after tying Lavan’s and Garyns’ wrists to the saddles of their horses.  None of them trusted the two men enough to have them walking—or riding—free.  Someone was always on watch to see that Sellaris made no attempt to liberate them, especially at night while the others slept.  Brydon had managed to capture most of the bandit’s steeds and had allowed Sellaris and the others to pick the ones they claimed as their own.  The rest he roped together in a string and loaded them with their surplus equipment.  Alyn would be able to return all of the horses to Akarska once she recovered.  He patted Darkling’s neck, saddened to know that the stallion would be included.  The black horse did not legally belong to him, after all.  He hoped briefly that they did not meet any Akarskan Hunters between here and Kaneelis.  It would be difficult to explain their possession of so many horses and a single, injured Akarskan girl.

~~ O ~~


    Toryn was heartily glad to be traveling once more, even though they did not cover much ground on the first day.  Between Alyn’s and Garyn’s injuries, Verana continually insisted they stop and rest as well as maintain a sedate pace.  During a midday break he watched Redwing set the remains of his meal aside and kneel down to speak with Alyn.  Toryn frowned.  The Akarskan girl was awake and talking, but she did not seem to have a firm grip on reality.  It was disconcerting.  And irritating.  Toryn made a show of cleaning a spot from his boot in order to make his eavesdropping less obvious.

    “Hello, Alyn,” Redwing said.  She looked at him and Toryn knew her blue eyes were open, but not piercing as they normally were.  Now, looking at Alyn was almost like looking into a child’s face.

    “Hello, Brydon.  Why are we traveling through a swamp?  Are we in Terris?  It’s much nicer in Akarska.  Can’t we go back?”

    Redwing shook his head.  “We need to go to Kaneelis.  Someone is there who wants to meet you.”

    Alyn brightened.  “Oh?  Is it someone new?  I might enjoy meeting someone new.  Will I?”

    “I’m sure you will.  Verana will tell you.  They want to examine your injuries and make sure you are healing properly.”

    She scowled.  “Of course I’m healing properly.  Verana keeps forcing me to drink horrible liquids and Toryn treats me as if I’m breakable.  And where did all these other people come from?”

    Redwing raised his gaze to Toryn suddenly with a pained expression.  They had both explained it to her a number of times already.  Toryn shrugged and Redwing looked helplessly at Verana.

    “Where is Davin?” Alyn asked suddenly and Toryn’s jaw tightened.  He was baffled by Alyn’s strange attachment to Davin.  She wanted the silver-haired man beside her at all times and seemed to trust him over everyone else.  Luckily for him, Davin seemed the most bewildered of all.  He seemed nonplused and tongue-tied when she wanted him near, but his silence did not disturb her.  She seemed content that he was nearby and she did not ask for conversation.  Davin had made a habit of sitting near her so that she could look at him for reassurance now and again.

    Davin’s behavior when he was not with Alyn was a puzzle.  He often disappeared into the forest—seeking solitude?  He also slept at the edge of camp, far from the beds of the others as if fearing contamination from some disease.

    “Why does she always call for him?” Toryn had demanded of Verana earlier in frustration.

    “I’m not certain.  He must have cared for her when she was a prisoner in the cave.  She remembers it, somehow, and clings to him, possibly because he was the only one there when she needed help.”  Toryn felt guilty enough without hearing those words.

    “Davin will be back soon, Alyn,” Verana said now in a soothing tone.  “Why not help Toryn feed the horses?  You know he never does it right.”

    Alyn stood up, almost her old self with her next words.

    “That’s right, he never does, does he?  Sometimes I wonder what he carries around in that head of his, for it is nothing used for thinking.”

    She gave Toryn a glare and marched off toward the picket line holding the horses nearby.

    “Will she ever be as she was?” Brydon asked.

    Verana nodded.  “She is getting more lucid every day.  What she really needs is rest—a lot of it—and preferably indoors.  Thankfully we should be in Kaneelis soon.  It will be impossible to miss the city if we continue west.  Even if we reach the coast, all we need to do is follow it south.”

    “Good.  Lavan is getting tiresome.”

    Toryn nearly barked a laugh.  That was an understatement.  Sellaris’s brother had gotten into the habit of singing rowdy and disgusting songs along the way and only the threat of a clout on the head from Toryn was enough to silence him; even then only for a while.  The balance of the time he spent calling curses down upon their heads and when he saw that Sellaris and Garyn were not joining him in his threats, he included them in the diatribe.  Earlier that day the redheaded idiot had made a run for it, setting heels to his mount and galloping into the trees.  Toryn had given immediate chase, shouting with glee at the opportunity to do something other than ride at a snail’s pace.

    He had returned a short time later leading Lavan’s mount with the unconscious man slumped over the saddle.  Toryn had looked warningly at Garyn, who had only shrugged.  Sellaris had sighed and dropped back to nurse her brother.  She had made no attempt to follow him in his escape and Toryn wondered what kind of brother would leave his sister to fend for herself.

    He sighed and got up to help Alyn with the horses.  Maybe if he tormented her enough her normal behavior would return.


~~ O ~~



    Brydon felt Sellaris watching him, as usual.  There was a question in her eyes and an invitation that he could not accept.  He almost wished she would try to free her brother instead of watching him.  He could have dealt more easily with that.

    He took out the flask and pouches he had been carrying around since they’d left the bandit camp and handed them to Verana.

    “Here.  I found these among Reed’s possessions.  I forgot about them until now.  What do you make of these packets?”

    Verana took the items and examined them.  Brydon already knew the brandy was fine stuff, as he had tasted it for the purpose of identification.  She opened the first packet and shook out a bit of the leafy substance onto a flat stone.  She added a sprinkle of the herbs to a cup of hot water she’d been preparing for tea, using the tip of her dagger to add the herbs.

    “Why do you do that?” he asked, curious as to her elaborate actions.

    “Some things are deadly poison, even to touch,” she replied. When the herbs had steeped long enough, she picked up the cup and smelled it, paused for a moment, and then touched her tongue to it.

    Instantly she spat, dumped the contents into the fire, and quickly dug into her pouches.  She found a small red leaf and put it into her mouth before chewing and swallowing it with a grimace of distaste.

    “What was it?” Brydon asked.

    “Poison,” she replied.  “It has to be ingested to work, but I do not like to take chances.  The leaf I ate will counter any ill effects.”

    Brydon protested, but she insisted on testing the other substances in the same way.  What she found was disconcerting, but not unexpected.  Four of the packets were poisonous substances in varying degrees of deadliness, and the remaining three were drugs whose main purpose was to knock the victim out.  The only differences in the knockout drugs were apparently the nastiness of the side effects.

    “A nice fellow, our Reed,” Brydon stated sarcastically when she had finished.  She marked them all carefully and stashed them away with the rest of her medicines. “Indeed.  I begin to believe there is more to the mysterious Reed than our other ‘friends’ suspect,” Verana replied.  Brydon looked at Sellaris, who had made up her bed for the night.  She glanced at him curiously.  She always seemed to know when his eyes were upon her.

    “If we encounter him again, we will know more of what to expect.”

    “Hopefully, we will not encounter him again,” Verana answered and Brydon agreed wholeheartedly.  He stood up and found Sellaris at his shoulder.

    “May I speak with you, Brydon?” she asked.  He felt a strange sense of danger when he looked into her mysterious eyes and his throat went dry.  He dreaded a confrontation with her even though he had sensed she was not finished with him.

    “All right,” he said and hoped it would be.

    They walked into the jungle, skirting moss-covered logs and ducking the wet fronds of leafy bushes.  He watched her hips sway as she walked in front of him and forced himself to look at something else.  When they were far away from camp, she turned.

    “You do not like me very much, do you?” she asked bluntly.  He floundered, caught off-guard by the question.

    “It is not a matter of like or dislike,” he protested.

     “Why have you been avoiding me?” she continued.  “Do you find me unattractive?  Tell me yes and I will stay away from you from now on.”

    Brydon felt momentary panic and fought to remain calm.  “Of... of course I do not find you unattractive.  You are beautiful, which I am sure you know well.  I just cannot... be near you.”

    “You want me, don’t you?”

    “Yes,” he snapped.  “But I have other obligations, other responsibilities.”

    Her grey eyes turned smoky and she actually laughed.  “I am not asking for an obligation,” she said flatly.  “Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life tied down?”  Before he could protest, she went on, “I know how Falarans think.  You like to keep your women trapped in your fine houses to bear your brats and cook your meals.  That life is not for me.  I am not asking for a commitment.”

    Brydon was astounded at her vehemence.  “I did not—” he began.  She cut him off.

    “Is it simply that you believe you, a noble Falaran, are too good to waste your precious time on me?”

    Brydon glared at that.  “As wise as you seem to think you are, you obviously know very little about men and especially about me.”

    She leaned forward seductively and whispered, “Do you want me to show you what I know about men?”

    Brydon nearly gnashed his teeth and then reached out to snatch her to him.  He kissed her roughly and was not surprised when she responded.  Her arms slid around him and she kissed him bruisingly, crushing her lips against his.  Her fingernails cut into his back and he felt his own hands twist roughly into her hair.  Their actions spoke more of war, not love, and the desire they had tried to ignore had grown into rage.

    He flung her away as suddenly as he had gripped her and stood watching her through half-lidded eyes, panting.  She spun away, walked a couple of shaky steps, and then whirled around to glare at him.  Her breath was uneven, as was his.  She put a hand to her mouth and touched blood on her lip.  They watched each other for a moment, not moving, and then Sellaris smiled.  After a moment, it turned into a throaty laugh.

    “You really do want me, eh, Falaran?”

    Brydon closed his eyes; fists clenched, and threw his head back in frustration.  “Yes,” he ground out.  “I’m sorry I hurt you, but I cannot have you.”

    She walked slowly over to stand in front of him again.  The look in her eyes was surprisingly tender.  She reached up to touch his cheek and he clenched his jaw tightly.

    “I’ve hurt you worse,” she said.  “But I am the one to say if you can or cannot have me.”

    “You do not understand.”  He sighed and opened his eyes again to look upon her and fought the need to take her into his arms.  He restrained himself from even touching an errant curl that had strayed down to lay near her half-open blouse.  She had replaced some of the laces, but seemed to take delight in tormenting him by leaving it partially open at the top.  “I am a Falaran, as you know.  I am also a Falaran on a Quest.”

    It took a moment for the clouds of incomprehension to clear from her eyes, but they did at last and she gasped, taking a shocked step backward.

    “You?  You will be the next Falaran king?”

    He nodded.  “If I succeed.”

    She was silent for a long time.  Part of him died to see the dawn of understanding in her eyes and the shutters that dropped down over them to conceal her emotions.  “And what is your precious Quest?” she asked finally.

    “I have told no one,” he said, but she turned away, barely listening to him, seemingly lost in her thoughts.  She turned back and gazed at him through narrowed eyes.

    “So you are saving yourself for your princess?” she asked bitingly.

    He flushed.  Put that way, it sounded foolish.   “I merely think it unwise to—”  He stopped abruptly.

    “To what?” she prodded, grey eyes dangerous.

    He turned away and spat it out.  “It would be unwise to fall in love with another when I must marry someone else.”  She was silent for a long time and he glanced at her again.  Her eyes were wide.

    “You think you would fall in love with me?” she asked quietly, with no trace of the amusement he had expected.

    Brydon could not tell her he believed he already had.  “I think it would be far too easy to fall in love with you,” he replied.  “And far too difficult for my future.”

    “What if it were meant to be?” she asked in a soft voice.

    “How could it?  You already stated that you could never live with me and ‘raise my brats.’  And I could not roam the countryside stealing horses.”

    She flushed.  “I would not expect you to.  Besides, it might be easier to live with a Falaran if he were king,” she said pertly before she turned and disappeared into the undergrowth.

    Brydon sat down on a mossy log and thought dismal thoughts for a long time.

~~ O ~~



    Toryn was tired.  He was tired of traveling, he was tired of listening to the obnoxious ranting of Lavan, he was tired of Alyn being someone else, he was tired of her hanging on to Davin like he was her pet mongrel…  She had only insulted him four times since they had rescued her from the horse thieves and once she had even apologized.

    It was all because of that stupid Falaran.  Redwing had been so busy acting like their leader that he had barely even talked to Toryn, except to tell him to feed the horses, or gather the wood, or cook their meals.  Toryn had a good mind to take his rotten mare and ride straight back to Redol.  The mare, as if sensing his thoughts, looked up from where she ate dried grass and ambled over to the tree he lay against.  She nuzzled his face for a moment and then sneezed wet grass bits all over him.

    He flailed his hands at her and wiped his face with his arms while glaring at her.  “Thank you so very much,” he snapped.  She swished her tail at him and went back to her grazing.  He sighed.  Stupid horse.

    And then there was Sellaris.  That wench had an acutely obvious lust for Redwing.  Toryn wondered if Redwing would give up the Quest after all, and for a mere wench!  How could he?  Toryn had to admit, if only to himself, that the very idea of the Quest was enticing, especially if Redwing sought the Gauntlet of Ven-Kerrick, as Toryn suspected.

    He stood up, deciding it was high time to find Redwing.  He needed to talk some sense into the Falaran’s head.  Near the fire Lavan had finally shut up, probably because Verana had given him a strong cup of tea that had a sprinkle of one of Reed’s powders in it.  For a Healer, she could be extremely mercenary.  Lavan was unconscious, which was the only state in which anyone could tolerate him.  Garyn performed odd exercises with his bound arms.

    “What are you doing?” Toryn asked when he did not spy Redwing.  Toryn hoped he was not out doing something stupid with the redheaded wench.  Garyn looked at him.

    “If my arms are ever untied, I would like to have some use of them,” Garyn explained.  Toryn remembered when his arms had been tied, back when Redwing had first captured him.  It was not a pleasant memory.

    “What would you do if I cut you loose?” Toryn asked, mirroring a question once asked of him.

    “I doubt I could even pick up a sword, much less use it, so I do not think I would do much of anything.”

    “Would you try to escape?”

    Garyn snorted.  “Of course not.  Sellaris was right.  We are heading for Kaneelis and I, for one, feel safer traveling through this bloody swamp with a group this size.  Even though,” he added, “I would feel even safer with a sword in my hand.”

    “You don’t seem like a bad sort,” Toryn said. “What are you doing with these others?”

    Garyn turned slightly red and glanced quickly at Sellaris, who had returned to camp and tried to rouse Lavan for some reason that Toryn could not pretend to know.  He looked from her to Garyn and comprehension dawned.  Garyn was in love with her.

    “I should warn you.  She’s after Redwing,” Toryn said somewhat maliciously in a low voice.  Garyn glanced at him with a startled expression.  “I caught them myself a few days ago.  I don’t think their embrace was one of dislike.”

    Garyn switched his gaze back to Sellaris and a look of melancholy passed over his face.  “She has never really seen me,” he admitted, half to himself.  “I have loved her since we were children, but she has not once looked at me as a man.”  Toryn nodded in satisfaction.  He reached down with his dagger and cut the bonds.  If Garyn had made a declaration of anger or vengeance, Toryn would have had no qualms leaving him tied up.  Garyn looked at him in surprise.

    “Just don’t do anything stupid,” Toryn warned.  Garyn nodded and moved his arms apart, wincing at the action.  Toryn knew he would be lucky to pick up a sword, even if the others were careless enough to leave one lying around.  He moved off to find Redwing or Davin and then stopped, thinking it a bad idea to leave Verana and Alyn alone with both Sellaris and Garyn freed.  Garyn he trusted marginally, Sellaris never.

    He waited impatiently until Davin returned with two dead, ugly swamp rabbits.  How he hunted with only a dagger was beyond Toryn’s ken, but it did not really matter as he was successful.

    “Alyn wants you,” Toryn said somewhat roughly as he neared the silver-haired man.  Davin’s gaze flashed to Alyn and the look of puzzlement on his face was not feigned.  It was plain he did not understand Alyn any better than the rest of them.  “Have you seen Redwing?”

    The silver-haired man shook his head.  “Not since he went off with that woman,” Davin replied.

    “I’m going to look for him.  Keep an eye on our little prisoners, especially that one.”  He gestured to that woman, who threw him a look of pure dislike before she returned to the fruitless task of trying to wake her brother.

    David nodded and Toryn went into the jungle to locate the Falaran.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

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