The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Two
Toryn trudged sullenly beside his Falaran captor as they followed the road through the forest. It was a broad path blanketed with grass and pine needles. Despite his current humiliating situation, shackled and prodded along by a damned Falaran, he was happy to be alive after the fiasco of the previous night. It could very well have been him lying dead in a ditch on this fine spring day. Apparently Redwing felt the same, for he whistled tunelessly as they walked. Toryn's sword was tied to Redwing's pack and his eyes were drawn to it time and again.
As near as Toryn could determine, they traveled near the southern border of Falara. The road would soon leave Redwing's homeland and cross into the mountainous northern edge of Terris.
They stopped at noonday for a brief rest and Toryn suffered the Falaran to stick a piece of dried lamb into his mouth and wash it down with water from his water skin, although the gamey taste of lamb made him shudder. Toryn studied his captor while they rested. The Falaran was young, but seemed quite fit. There were no signs of decadent living that he had expected to see. A long sword was scabbarded to his waist; its hilt glittered with gold. Toryn wanted to see the blade. Admittedly, the Falaran could use a bow, but Toryn wondered if he had any skill with a sword. The elegant beauty of the ruby-encrusted hilt did not speak of hard usage.
Redwing wore a gilt-edged dagger that matched the sword and Toryn thought both would be worthy prizes for him to show off once he returned home. The Falaran wore fawn-colored leather breeches and supple black boots. His shirt was fine wool in a simple buff color and over that he wore a brown leather vest lined in sheepskin. Stitched onto the right breast of his vest was an intricate design that Toryn periodically tried to examine when Redwing's attention wandered. It was some sort of Falaran clan-symbol, he supposed. It resembled a fighting falcon set on a red shield. Toryn's interest was also captured by the signet ring Redwing wore upon his left hand. He could not make out the design, but it flashed ruby and gold when the sunlight caught it. Toryn studied it enviously. Falaran jewelry was prized in Redol.
He watched Redwing with grudging approval. The Falaran moved quietly and deliberately. He was no novice traveler. His camp had been well laid in a rocky bowl ringed with brush to catch on clothing and rustle on intrusion. Toryn and his companions had had a difficult time sneaking up to the campsite, crawling inch by inch on their bellies and sliding carefully through small gaps in the undergrowth. As quiet as they had been, Redwing had known of their coming, even though he should have been asleep. One of them must have made enough noise to alert him.
The Falaran took no chances with Toryn as they traveled, staying far enough behind to avoid surprise attacks on Toryn's part, yet not so far back that Toryn could have fled without Redwing feathering him. Redwing seemed to prefer keeping the bow in his hand rather than carrying it over his shoulder as they walked.
"Why are you taking me along?" Toryn asked finally when his curiosity got the better of his pride. He tried to wipe water droplets from his chin with his shoulders, since Redwing had not untied his hands when it was time to drink, instead sitting far too close as he tipped the water skin gently into Toryn's parched mouth. He hated to converse with the enemy, but unease about his potential fate prompted him to pry what he could out of the Falaran.
"Would you rather be dead like your friends?" Redwing asked. "How long before others of your tribe come searching for you and your cohorts?"
"Why? Do you plan to keep me hostage?" Toryn asked, unable to fathom the Falaran's motives. Redwing snorted.
"Certainly not," he said. "Not even if you'd bring a ransom." Toryn kept his features perfectly blank, neither affirming nor denying the statement while the blue eyes studied him. Redwing shrugged and continued, "I haven't the time to trade threats and offers with your people, even if they were inclined to let me live after slaying three Redolians."
Toryn shook his head in confusion. "Why not just kill me, then?" He did not want to die, as Redwing had intimated, but he was curious about the Falaran's intentions. It simply made no sense to keep Toryn alive.
Redwing smiled ruefully. "Contrary to popular Redolian belief, not all Falarans are bloodthirsty killers."
Toryn was dubious at that but kept silent. He was glad enough to still be alive after what had happened to his accomplices. He hadn't known them well, so their deaths caused him no great pain, but he did not like to see his countrymen slain, no matter their incompetence. Then again, he could also be considered incompetent. He had not been able to kill a lone man with the aid of three others. His brother would be mortified. Maybe if he stayed with the Falaran he would get another chance at Redwing and could return to Redol in pride. He perused Brydon speculatively, a gaze that the Falaran did not overlook. He checked the bonds and Toryn felt some satisfaction that a mere glance could provoke a reaction.
The day turned out to be pleasantly warm. With no prompting, Redwing paused and loosened Toryn's bonds to allow him to relieve himself, although he kept a dagger pressed into the small of Toryn's back. He bit back the need to fight his way free. Sooner or later, the Falaran would become lax… He hoped.
Toryn considered himself a man of some patience, but after listening to Brydon's tuneless whistling for another hour, his bruised eardrums persuaded him to speak. "May I request some other form of torture?" He asked, stopping suddenly. "Pluck out my fingernails, perhaps? Blind me? Practice your archery on me?"
"What are you talking about?" Redwing seemed startled by the outburst. He gazed at Toryn closely as if assessing his condition. Toryn stood tall, determined not to show any sign of weakness, even though his head pounded with every step and blood trickled from beneath the bandage to mingle with the sweat of his brow.
"Your whistling is worse than the howl of a sick cat," Toryn said.
"I'm glad you like it." Redwing grinned. "Please keep walking." He whistled louder and more tunelessly than before. After another half-hour, Toryn groaned. The attempt at annoyance had been amplified by Toryn's headache.
"Enough. I will talk. What do you want to know?"
"I wasn't trying to force you into speaking."
"I'll talk. Anything to silence your accursed whistling."
"Well, if you feel so strongly about it ..."
"Very well," Redwing said. "Tell me about yourself."
"My name is Toryn. I am from Redol and I plan to kill you. Let's talk about you, now."
"I already know what you think about me."
"Perhaps I will change my mind," Toryn offered and then chuckled at the absurd thought.
"More likely you will milk me for information to plan your escape and retaliation."
Toryn nodded contemplatively. "That, too."
"Is there anything else we can discuss? Or shall I just whistle?"
Toryn thought quickly. "You seemed surprised at my mention of Adona. Is it possible we have similar beliefs?" He had pondered the question as they walked.
"Most Falarans worship Adona," Redwing said, sounding nonplused. "Although the more remote villages still pay homage to the pagan gods of earth and moon, sun and sky. The Brotherhood of the Path built a chapel in Eaglecrest five summers ago. They set up several monasteries in Falara and began teaching. I was trained by the Order of Might."
"Trained? Trained in what?"
"Archery," Brydon replied with a grin. Toryn rolled his eyes, but he had to acknowledge that one. "Sword and hand-fighting. Lance skill."
"I didn't know the Church taught the military arts. At home the monks teach only the words of Adona and perform ceremonies on holy days, as well as marriages, birth and death rites, and blessings. And there are roaming Healers, of course."
"That is because Redol has only accepted the Order of Knowledge and the Order of Healing," Redwing explained. "The Order of Might consists of Knight-Priests—trained warriors who fight for justice and honor in the service of Adona. They are usually established as guardsmen for royalty or the nobility and answer to their secular overlords, though their first loyalty is to the Church. Those in Eaglecrest guard the royal family and keep order in the city."
Toryn pondered that for a moment. He doubted Redol would ever allow a militant order of priests to get a foothold there, though if they were truly loyal, perhaps they could be used to fight against Falara.
"The Order of Might never fights amongst itself," Redwing said as if reading Toryn's mind. "If Redol established a Brotherhood, they would never battle the Brotherhood of the Lance in Falara."
"What good are they, then?"
Redwing laughed. "They keep order. They fight bandits, guard prisoners, escort travelers through hostile areas... They are priests, as well, so they perform the holy offices like your wandering monks. The Bardic Order is somewhat less devout than the other Orders. They seek Adona's blessing through music and song. Bards roam the world, exchanging lodging for song and stories."
"I have seen a Bard!" Toryn exclaimed. "He came to our winter encampment and spent the evening playing pipes and singing. Afterward, he wanted to hear some of our music. Several of the girls sang and we all danced to the old tunes. It was a great time! He wrote many strange symbols on paper while he was with us."
Brydon nodded. "Writing music, no doubt. Bards always seek new material. I wouldn't be surprised to find that same bard singing Redolian songs in Bodor."
"What do you mean `writing music'-- how can music be written?"
"Each sound has a special symbol. Anyone can read it once they understand the symbols."
"Can you read it?"
"Some," Redwing admitted. "Though I can only play the lute and not very good." Toryn knew the Falaran jested. Read music, indeed!
Redwing went on. "The Brotherhood of the Book taught me how to read regular writing as well as music. The Bishop taught me mathematics. I was blessed by the Bishop's own hand before starting this journey."
"We cannot possibly have similar beliefs," Toryn said, still bewildered and somewhat horrified at the thought.
"Redol is like Falara in its younger days, before the Church began to flourish. I confess I expected Redol to have more strange pagan beliefs, like Akarska. I thought your people worship some sort of bull god."
Toryn shrugged. "Some do, but the Terrin Church is gaining converts. My tribe observes the old ceremonies during breeding and calving seasons, but we also celebrate the newer holy days, like those in midsummer and midwinter. My people do not gather together often, so we enjoy the feasts. But few remain who actually believe we were descended from Re, the bull-god."
"So you accept the concept of the Creator and the knowledge that all mankind is of one spirit?"
Toryn snorted. "That is for the monks to debate. I don't wonder where my ancestors came from when I'm snaring a rabbit or stalking Falarans."
"You aren't even curious? What if your people and mine have the same ancestry? You and I could even be related, somewhere far back in the mists of time."
"I refuse to believe that!"
"Even so," Redwing said. The idea seemed to intrigue him and he stopped whistling for the remainder of the day. Toryn contemplated it also, though he tried not to. It was an abhorrent thought.
When they stopped for the evening, Redwing bound Toryn to a tree, took his bow, and told Toryn he was going to find some meat. Toryn did not care. His head throbbed and each step for the last hour had sent a dreadful pounding up into his skull until he thought it would split. He fidgeted with his bonds for a moment or two after Redwing disappeared and prayed, despite himself, that the Falaran returned soon. Being abandoned for wild animal fodder was not a pleasant prospect.
In due time, Redwing returned carrying two fat rabbits which he skinned and dressed. Toryn was asleep shortly after the process began and the rabbits were fully cooked before he awoke. He stirred as Redwing pulled the roasted meat from the flames and watched the firelight glint off the man's golden hair. His stomach growled.
"Aren't you afraid other Redolians will spot your fire and come for you?" he asked, though he knew the chance of it was slim. Redwing likely suspected Toryn's chief of initiating the assassination attempt. In fact, the plan to waylay the Falaran had been cooked up on the spur of the moment and acted upon without much forethought. Toryn had been visiting a neighboring village when news had come of a Falaran with a quest. His companions had been insulting Toryn's manhood for nearly the entire day, so he had boldly suggested that they go and kill the questor. After much drinking and despite the scoffing of their elders—or perhaps because of it—the four of them had set off to make a name for themselves. It had been something of a competitive lark until Redwing had turned the game deadly serious.
"No. No one is near for at least two leagues," the Falaran replied and blew on the meat to cool it.
"How would you know that?" Toryn thought it a very strange comment.
Brydon smiled. "I have very good eyesight."
Hilarious, Toryn thought disgustedly. Redwing shoved some hot meat into Toryn's mouth, most likely to prevent further questions.
"I feel like a pet cur." Toryn swore after he swallowed a large bite that had burned a portion of his tongue.
"Would you rather feel like a cur, or a corpse?" Redwing asked.
Toryn entertained a brief fantasy of throttling the bastard. After they had both eaten their fill, Redwing leaned back against a tree. They listened to the sounds of the night in silence. Under different circumstances, it would have been a very pleasant evening.
"What do you plan to do with me?"
Redwing's face tipped toward him. "If I set you free, what would you do?"
"Go home," Toryn lied. He quelled the rush of excitement Redwing's words had brought; he knew the Falaran was likely just making conversation.
"Were you sent by someone to kill me, or did you take it upon yourselves? I know that Redol has no single leader. Was it your chief who ordered it? Or something like a council of chiefs?"
Toryn shifted uncomfortably. "I would rather not say."
"Would your people follow me all the way to Silver?"
"You're going to Silver?"
"Perhaps." The Falaran shrugged. "Would they?"
"Of course not! No one would travel such a distance. We would wait until you returned," Toryn replied truthfully. "And hope you did not."
"Good." Redwing pushed himself to his feet and tucked the leather cloak around Toryn. He spread out a makeshift bed for himself, curled up, and was asleep before Toryn could ask him anything more.
The next day dawned cloudy and cold. They broke their fast with leftover meat, some crumbling oatcakes, and dried apple slices. Toryn eyed the clouds balefully and hoped it wouldn't rain.
"So much for spring," he grumbled and shivered as the Falaran untied him from the tree. Redwing shook out the cloak, draped it over Toryn's shoulders, and then fastened it at his neck.
"You don't prepare very well for travel," Redwing commented. Toryn wore only black leather breeches, boots, and a rough shirt with a thin leather vest. He had carried nothing but his sword and the two daggers Redwing had confiscated.
"Our intention was to kill you and return," Toryn said. "Not to take an extended journey. Where are we, anyway?"
"Approaching the pass near the Akarskan border."
"So we're still in Falara? Best stay on the road and not wander into Akarska," Toryn advised. "They'll kill you faster than any Redolian."
Redwing shouldered his pack and Toryn preceded him down the needle-strewn hillside. Their boots hardly made a sound on the dew-wet ground.
"Perhaps not. We have had Quests to Akarska in the past and they supply horses to the Brotherhood of the Lance in Eaglecrest," Brydon said.
"They supply horses?" Toryn was incredulous. Akarskans and their horses were seldom parted. It was a historical fact.
"Yes. In the late 100s, Falara bargained with Akarska in a bid to claim more land," Brydon explained.
"Well, eventually the talks disintegrated and it might have led to war. In desperation, Akarska's leaders turned to the Church in Kaneelis. They agreed to supply horses to the Order of Might so that Knight-Priests could be mounted. In return, no one associated with the Church may violate Akarska's borders. They can build no temples, no monasteries, not even an order of Healers, although I don't know what Akarskans do when they get ill. The treaty has held for the past hundred years, though there are still far more Knight-Priests than horses. The steeds that Akarska so generously parts with are always gelded so the Church can do no breeding. Akarska makes certain of that."
Toryn snorted. Akarskans were horse-hoarding fools. What harm would it do to allow the horse population to increase outside of Akarska's borders? It would probably cut down on the incidences of horse-theft in Akarska. He wondered if the Akarskans worshipped horses—they had their own beliefs that few outsiders knew anything about.
"'No one knows the mind of a woman or an Akarskan,'" Redwing said, repeating an old quote.
Toryn smiled and finished, "'And Akarskan women are doubly mysterious.' Isn't the pass dangerous this time of year?"
Redwing nodded. "We shall have to pray there are no avalanches or flash floods. Still, it's better to chance nature than gamble on Akarska's goodwill, eh?"
Toryn was skeptical, but said nothing. He suspected Redwing feared at least one Redolian ambush awaiting him along the road through Terris, should he survive crossing the pass. If plans for an ambush existed, Toryn knew nothing about them.
Much later, as Redwing pushed an overhanging branch out of Toryn's way so he could duck beneath it, Toryn asked, "Are you ever going to free my hands?"
"I had no idea the ropes were bothering you," Redwing said dryly. "You should have said something."
"You'd enjoy watching me beg, wouldn't you, Falaran?" Toryn gritted.
"If you have a yearning to do so, feel free. It would be a tale worth retelling."
"You'll see the sun fall from the sky first."
Redwing chuckled but halted to check Toryn's bonds. His breath caught in apparent alarm. Toryn knew the flesh of his wrists was nearly worn away and in some places oozed blood. The rough wool of the makeshift rope had rubbed his flesh mercilessly. Redwing swore and severed the bonds with his dagger. Toryn nearly screamed as the scraps fell away and he brought his arms painfully around to the front. Attempting to move stiffened muscles after a day and a half of inactivity was neither easy nor pleasant. Redwing made him sit down and uncorked his water skin before he poured water over the raw wounds. Toryn closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, but uttered no sound. The cool liquid felt like salt upon his torn flesh. Redwing washed Toryn's wrists clean and then cut strips from one of his shirts to use as bandages.
"I am sorry. I hadn't realized the bonds were so tight. You should have told me they were cutting you."
Toryn's eyes flew open. He studied Redwing carefully as the man tended to his wrists. What manner of man was this, to apologize for minor wounds on a man who had tried to kill him? Was it a ruse? He searched Redwing's face, but the Falaran's clear blue gaze reflected only sincerity. For the first time Toryn considered him as a fellow man, and not simply as an enemy. The Falarans had chosen this man as their future king. Was there something in Redwing that would cause men to follow him, perhaps even to lay down their lives for him? He wondered what Redwing did in his homeland. Was he a leader of men?
"Never mind," Toryn said brusquely and looked away, unable to meet Redwing's stare any longer. "They will heal."
Brydon nodded. "Let me look at your head."
Against Toryn's protests, Redwing removed that bandage as well and cleaned the wound before he pronounced it uninfected and healthy-looking. He handed Toryn a comb and allowed him to tend to his hair, for which he was grateful. He watched as Toryn carefully wove his intricate braid. It was entwined with bright green leather adorned with jet and pale green stones. Toryn did not bother to explain the significance of either braid or decorations. They had a familial import.
"Can you travel?"
"Of course," Toryn replied, somewhat annoyed that his enemy was now acting like a nursemaid. To prove it, he stood up and they set off once more. Toryn still led, though he noticed with amusement that Redwing prudently kept a closer grip on his weapons. Toryn slowly worked his arms to get the dreadful stiffness out. Even if he could somehow get his sword back from Redwing, he knew he'd be lucky if he could use it.
As they traveled, the terrain grew rockier, forcing them to climb more frequently. The road lost its level plane and became boulder-strewn and rugged. Pot sized holes pitted the surface and water drainage had created deep runnels.
"Who maintains this road?" Toryn asked after he stumbled over an exposed root and skinned his left palm. A wagon would have had an impossible time following the path.
"Falara cares for it on this side of the pass," Redwing replied, panting with exertion. "And Terris maintains the southern portion. Once the danger of snow slide has passed, work crews will be sent out. The Church keeps the road open to facilitate communication between the Orders."
The air grew thinner and they stopped to rest frequently, sweating in spite of the cool day. By sundown, both were exhausted. Redwing had managed to feather two quail when they had flushed out a covey next to the road. When they ate that night Toryn was allowed to feed himself, for which he was grateful. He hoped never to take such small freedoms for granted again. The birds were small but delicious, eaten with a slab of hard white cheese and flat bread baked with herbs and nuts. They devoured the meal in silence.
"What do Redolians swear upon, Toryn?" Redwing asked as he tossed his gnawed bone into the fire. Sparks shot up toward the night sky. "What is an oath you would never break?"
"Personally? I suppose I would swear upon Adona." Toryn shrugged as he concentrated on the last of his meat. It was tasty, but it needed something. Rosemary, perhaps. Ale would be nice, too, or something a bit stronger. Like that firewater the Amblyn tribe brewed in the winter. "Or upon the sword of my father. Why do you ask?"
"Very well, if you swear by Adona and on the sword of your father that you will not try to escape, nor try to harm, nor kill me, then I will not bind you tonight," Redwing declared. Toryn looked at him as if he'd lost his mind.
"Why would you do that?"
Redwing made a face. "I have no wish to kill you. Even though you tried to slay me, you acted for the good of your country, as you see it. I hope to convince you that should I fulfill my Quest and become the next king of Falara, I have no designs on Redol, except perhaps to make peace between us. There has been bloodshed and hostility for far too long." He held up a hand to forestall Toryn's comment. "I know that two days has not been long enough to persuade you of my sincerity, but perhaps you have doubt now that all Falarans are your enemies. I cannot keep you with me indefinitely, but I would rather you did not return to Redol just yet."
"It will take me a week to get far enough into Terris to avoid pursuit," Redwing admitted. "On the chance that you still want to kill me, I would rather not cumber myself with the possibility of you following me with reinforcements."
"What if I swore to Adona that I would not tell anyone where you were going?" Toryn asked dryly.
"One promise at a time, please." Redwing raised a hand.
"I could have escaped any time today," Toryn said. "There were numerous opportunities."
"Were there? You have seen my skill with a bow." It was true. Toryn had been ready to make a run for it several times, but Redwing's longbow was always in hand and Toryn had never seen such accuracy as the Falaran possessed. To slay three men with three arrows in the dead of night … Such a deed could not be attributed to luck.
Toryn mulled over the suggestion. It seemed insane—to gamble that Toryn would act in a civilized manner. What was honor between enemies? Toryn was of two minds. He would like nothing more than to cut the Falaran's throat and make for home, yet Redwing's simple assumption of Toryn's faith struck home. If he swore by Adona and then betrayed his oath, would he be putting his soul in jeopardy? Where would be the glory in the kill if he swore falsely and attacked the guileless Falaran in his sleep? Redwing was taking a deadly risk—a move that spoke of either incredible courage or complete madness.
"I suppose I have little choice," Toryn said. "I swear to Adona that I will not try to escape tonight, nor try to kill you, even though you are a dirty sheepherding Falaran who deserves to die."
"I suppose that will have to do." The Falaran pulled out his sword and knelt before it with left his hand on the hilt. He clasped his right hand over his heart and bowed his head.
"You do that every morning and night," Toryn commented. "Why?"
"I'm giving thanks. Would you like to hear the words?"
Toryn nodded and Redwing prayed aloud. "Adona, Giver of life and breath, fire and water, thanks be to You for watching over me this day. Protect me as I sleep so that I may dedicate myself to Your service on the morrow." He grinned. "And guide Toryn to follow the path of honor, in Your name. So be it."
Toryn made no comment and Redwing prepared himself for bed. Toryn knew the Falaran would sleep little that night, most likely regretting his generous decision. As for Toryn, he had no intention of going anywhere. It would be a long, cold journey back to his family in Redol and Morgyn was sure to have a frothing fit once Toryn told him what they'd done… The longer he put off that little confrontation, the better. He'd stick with the crazy Falaran for a while longer. Toryn frowned as he pondered Redwing's earlier words. Could he be sincere? Would he really seek to bring peace between Falara and Redol? Was such a thing even possible after so long, after so much bloodshed and rage? He doubted it, but something in Redwing's eyes made him want to believe.