Also, if I promised that, why did I let Kellas be his first warden? As I said, I liked Kellas when we first met. I liked his drive. He did what needed to be done. Soletus was reluctant to act at times when he was younger. I thought that he would help him in the decision making skills. I may not have liked Kellas, but I did respect him. In fact, I was the one who recommended him for first warden status. Before that though, I gave him a spot in my band. I thought he was what my band needed and Soletus needed. However, he was always going to be that man no matter how much time passed. That man who killed another who I was trying to protect on my watch.
The Mayor was a wonderful host. They were given their own rooms beside each other, bath, and they were invited for a very large meal. Oeric had no trouble eating a large meal after eating one before. Clearly, Soletus and he shared the same bottomless appetite. However, Kiao sat at the table stirring her roasted vegetables wishing they had stayed at the inn. The man’s death lingered in the air, making it cool despite a fire in the hearth in the connected sitting room.
Mayor Halvus talked mostly to Oeric thankfully. The jolly man wanted to know about everything and Oeric smooth baritone filled the room. However, he paused to pluck another roll from the basket was when he took notice of her.
“Are you okay,” he asked.
Kiao placed her fork down. “I’m not particularly hungry,” she said and her body betrayed her and let out a shudder.
“You should go to bed. We’ve long day ahead of us tomorrow. I want to get as far as we can.”
“Agreed Sister Kiao. I’ll have a bed warmer brought up to you,” said the Mayor.
She was going to protest, but she was met with the frown of a fussy father and the earnest eyes of generous host. She excused herself and went to bed. Sleep, of course, proved elusive and she lay awake in bed well into the night. All she could think of was the cur and when she closed her eyes, his thin body on the ground. It was like dealing with her first death all over again.
When she did fall asleep, she was woken up by a tap on her door. Kiao plucked her trousers off the floor and pulled them on in bed. She expected Oeric being the one knocking, instead there as a young soldier waiting for her.
“I was told by Captain Gyrfalcon to wake you and escort you to the docks,” he said.
Kiao nodded and closed the door. She walked to the window and pulled the curtains back. It was still very dark with only a hint of morning towards the horizon. It was clear Captain Gyrfalcon didn’t want anyone to see them on the ferry. She imagined there were troves of people upset by the decision to close them and it would’ve made it worse seeing civilians allowed to leave.
When she walked outside, she was joined by Oeric who was, once again, on four legs. Her horse had been brought to her, already saddled with Oeric’s whip canes tucked by her saddle bags. His packs had already strapped on probably by the soldier who led them. She yawned frequently while he was reserved again. However, his gait was smooth and unhurried and showed that he wasn’t in any pain.
At the docks, a very groggy ferryman stood with a lantern in his hand. Beside him towered his fellow ferryman, a giant. It was an odd sight to see one so far north and working with elves. He was twice the height as Oeric and his arms had enough bulk on them that he could toss them across the lake. He inhaled the damp morning hair and slapped his fellow worker on the back when they were close. The elf nearly tumbled flat on his face and about dropped his lantern. The giant tipped his hat at them and spoke with a rich booming voice.
“Mornin’. Hope ya ready for travelin’ in a stew pot day.”
Kiao smiled. “Morning, I’m ready as I will ever be.
Kiao pulled her horse on board the raft and Oeric followed without any acknowledgment.
“That a nice wolf you’ve have there,” said the giant. “Reminds me of the desert worg my pa used to have. So gentle you could feed him raw meat from your fingers.”
Kiao looked down at Oeric. “This one might get insulted if you do that.”
“If he bites you, he’ll make a handsome throw,” said the ferryman.
“Try to turn me into a throw and I’ll do more than just bite,” Oeric retorted.
The elven ferryman nearly leapt off the dock and into the water. The giant’s large brown eyes went wide and then he let out a whoop and held his shaking belly.
“Got yourself one of those shifting elves I see,” said the giant between laughter and walked on to the craft they would be riding.
“He’s for protection,” said Kiao.
“Well you’ll need him. Not so nice over the river,” stated the giant. “Plan on stopping early today. The sky is going to drop down.”
He then stepped on to their raft. Despite his size, the watercraft only wobbled a little. Then again, it was made to carry two full sized wagons. With just the two of them on them, it was very empty. The other ferryman untired the large raft from the dock. The giant launched them forward with a strong push with his oar. They stayed on course with a rope suspended above them.
Oeric joined her at the back of the ferry and saw her looking up at the device the held them in place.
“They only have a handful of these cable ferries in the entire country. They can only make these kinds of ropes in a single place and it takes a long time just to braid one.”
Kiao then left the back going to the side realizing, she was going to see the sun rising on the lake. The wind on the lake took her cowl off.
“This is beautiful,” she said.
Oeric attention was on the dark shore across from them. “Enjoy it now. It’s all forest from now on.”
Kiao nodded and looked across the water.
The sun rose above the horizon by the time they made it to shore and sat down a road winding through a thick forest where the light had trouble reaching the floor. The tree canopies around them were huge. All the growth on the side of the road didn’t help. It was kept as clean as it could be but that wasn’t enough to make it less oppressive feeling.
Oeric sat a steady pace that lasted until the rain stopped them. He pulled off the road and found an embankment and he shifted back to put up the tarp. There was no fire that day and the two of them ate a meager meal of travel cakes and water. Warmth wasn’t an issue as Oeric sat close to Kiao and his furry body provided her enough warmth to keep the cool dampness at bay.
The next day, brought more humidity and insects. She rode in misery with a cloud of little black bugs trying to dive into her eyes and ears. Oeric fared no better with his own personal cloud and walked with his ears flat on his skull. At midday, the bugs thinned as drizzle descended on them. The wolf in front of her became less regal looking as be became sodden. He looked leggy and with the hairs of his fur sticking to each other, it revealed the areas were no fur grew from the scars on his body.
“I suggest we stop or you’re going to get sick,” she told him.
“We will. I’m trying to make it to the next road marker,” he assured her and trotted onward. His paws and legs getting covered with mud the more they traveled. She wasn’t looking forward to him shaking his fur out to dry off.
She expected a simple road sign instead, they came to an intersection with a tall pole with markers pointed to multiple points. To their left sat a lodge. To the priestess’s surprise, Oeric walked toward the large wooden sign that sat in front the building and read it.
“The home of Graycrest’s and traveler’s lodge. Has beds and serves dinner,” he said. “We’re just in time. Hopefully they have beds or we sleep in the stables. Stay here.”
He trotted to the cover of the trees and shifted back to himself.
“Come on, let’s see if they still have beds.”
They did indeed have sleeping space. However, Kiao came to realize that indoor sleeping space met a communal sleeping area. It took up the entire third floor of the lodge. Kiao looked at the occupied rows of beds and saw only a single one left. Her stomach twisted. Oeric massaged his hip when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“Believe me this isn’t ideal, but just work with it,” he whispered to her as he sat their things on the floor beside the bed.
Kiao eased herself down on the bed and wrestled with the squirminess that descended on her. It would’ve been fine if the reasoning behind it was not wanting to share her sleeping space. However, it was the fact that he was a man. She didn’t understand it as she spent several nights with him already. Then again, he was a wolf and was covered in fur. Now he was flesh again.
She tried to hide her awkwardness by focusing on something else but realized he had her pack. She reached over the bed and tapped him on the shoulder.
“I would like my things,” she said softly.
He reached down and handed her pack to her without much of a fuss. He unruffled by their arrangement it seemed. He didn’t display anything other than his steady monk composure. Surely, she could muster her own priestess composure.
She let him focus on running a comb through his hair before he tied it off in a loose pony-tail with a strip of leather. Kiao searched through her satchel making sure everything was still dry and pulled out a packet of pain powder for him. She handed it to him.
“Here, take this while eating,” she said and then became aware that someone was staring in their direction. She looked to the bed beside them and caught the eye of a man with facial tattoos on his face. The man looked back down at his boots he was cleaning off.
Kiao looked around the room and saw two more men, and a woman. It was a collection off for Dyne elves all wearing mercenary badges on their chests. It was rare to see the Dyne in the Fen territory and unheard of to see them as mercenaries. Being in the presents of them replaced the nervousness she felt about sharing a bed with Oeric.
They believed that Fen elves were dissenters of Diva, their goddess. They believed that Dias was the demigod of song. Not someone to be worship, just a patron of birth to determine what you would be in life as Cordea explained to her one day. She was full-bloodied Dyne but had no facial tattoos. Her family was nomadic Fenndish Dyne. They weren’t allowed to own land. Diva was the world beneath their feet and they choose to defy Diva because they followed the words of her grandmother who was a chanter.
She could probably tell her what their intricate facial tattoos meant. They were beautiful as well as disturbing. The two younger male’s facial tattoos looked violent consisting of claw marks and the face of some beast. The older man had an eagle talon and swooping feathers. The only female in the party, had the smallest of the tattoos. It was on her right cheek and was a circle with antler sprouting up from it. There was a marking of a moon as well but Kiao didn’t want to give them a lot of eye contact. She moved her cowl hide her face more.
From that point on, she was reluctant to speak. She didn’t want any trouble. It was difficult at dinner because many wanted to know about how the roads were from where they came. Their questions were directed at her sometimes but Oeric answered their inquiries while Kiao stuffed her face. She did so quickly so she could retreat to the sleeping quarters where it was empty. Her plan was to get a little sleep in before Oeric laid down. There was no telling how long she would stay awake sleeping beside him.
“Illogical,” she muttered to herself when she pulled the covers back. “He’s the same person wolf or elf but having thumbs and skin is more threatening than teeth and claws.”
She settled in bed when footsteps started coming towards the room. She held her breathe and waited. The older Dyne elf man walking in.
“Don’t talk much do you for a chanter,” he said and stopped by the foot of her bed.
The hairs on her arms rose and she pulled her legs closer to her and sat up. “You have to excuse me. I was very hungry and tired.”
He then sat at the corner with a nonthreatening smile. “I’ve seen a lot of things on the road, but I can’t say I’ve met a chanter.”
“We’re a bit rare,” she said pulling herself closer to the headboard and glimpsed at the doorway for Oeric to appear.
“Aye, but what I’ve seen a lot is women dressed as men,” he said softly. “You do it nicely but, you’ve small hands long lady fingers.”
“I found that hand size doesn’t mean very much to be honest. I’ve one of my chanter brothers who I work with has small lady hands.”
He continued on being amused. “If you want to be that way fine, but there’s a fighting pit nearby and a fight tonight. You’re traveling with a cur and I wouldn’t put it passed him to drop you off there to pay a debt.”
Kiao nearly laughed at him at the absurdity of his statement. “I assure you, the First Warden and I are on a mission that has nothing to do with bloodsports.”
The man’s face twisted. “First Warden?” He started laughing. “A cur who’s a Fenndish Monk, haha. Does that make you a Brotherhood Priestess?”
“Indeed she is,” said Oeric, strolling in. “She’s a special exception to the rules.”
The man stood and unsheathed a hunting knife from his belt. “Take off your shirt!”
Oeric’s gaze shifted to the knife and then back to the man’s face as he crossed the room putting himself between him and Kiao. “No need for that. I’ve a brand. Don’t ask me again. I like to be modest.”
“Who’s your handler?”
The man pulled Oeric forward by the front of his shirt and pointed the tip of his blade on the underside of Oeric’s chin.
“His name please,” the man demanded. Kiao threw her covers off her legs but Oeric held her off with a wave of his hand.
“Clincher,” he said nonchalantly.
The mercenary squinted at him and then his face lifted as if something was revealed to him.
“Clincher, now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a while. He used to be a big among the handlers and then he was nothing, as they always find themselves.” He patted the knife on Oeric’s cheek. “What I remember is that he didn’t like giving up a useful dog. He would make sure to lead them into an early grave in the ring. How did you escape?”
“He left me for dead.”
“And your fighter name?”
Oeric gave him his wolf’s grin. “Lykkon.”
He slid the knife from underneath Oeric’s pom to the side of his neck.
Kiao jumped to her feet and Oeric gaze shifted towards her and gave her a nonverbal, “No.”
“I remember you, Lykkon. They tossed a skulker with you in the ring once. You killed it with your teeth as a wolf and nearly killed the person trying to pull you out. Lost a hand I think.”
“My name is Oeric.”
“Well Lykkon, I find it quite the coincidence that you’re here with a fight nearby. So who is she? Some runaway you met on the road hopping to feed the curs for coin? I mean you could’ve chosen a better cover story than being a Fenndish monk.”
Oeric jabbed the man in the throat followed by chopping his knife arm with his hand. The knife clattered against the floor as Oeric grabbed his arm and twisted it behind the mercenary’s back. He ended it all with a kick to the man’s knees dropping him to the floor. The mercenary cried out as his hand being bent unnaturally to keep him down.
“First Warden, please don’t dislocate his shoulder or break his wrist,” said Kiao getting up and picking up the man’s knife. “Let’s talk about this.”
“Who said I wasn’t going to talk? I don’t like pointy objects, so I was removing it from my sight.”
Kiao sighed and sat down placing the knife on the other side of her leg. “What’s your name?”
“Greetings, Xerius,” she said crossing her legs becoming business like. “Look, the First Warden and I have better things to do than be part of a bloody spectacles. He’s trying to find his son.”
“Son,” grunted the man confused.
“Yes and I’m on a mission from Dias to help a fellow chanter as well as find my bond partner. The First Warden was charged to come with me as my escort.”
“I’m not Fenndish. So why should I—,”
“Because I am,” said Kiao firmly and her lit came strong and eyes becoming a hot violet. “Oeric let him go.”
He obeyed and backed away to her side. Xerius stood up rubbing his wrist and rolling his shoulder.
“He is my escort and I trust him with my life. Don’t you dare hurt him or you deal with me,” she said mustering as much threat in her voice as she could.
Xerius massaged his throat. “You’re dancing with a fiend if you believe that. Curs are fouled up in the head. It starts with their handlers. Some beat and starve their fighters.”
Kiao looked at Oeric who became stoned faced.
“And then there are the ones like Clincher whose training consisted of extreme exercises while going straight for weaknesses of the mind. And then there is the lifestyle. There’s this hidden town called Paradise where the curs go in the off-season. It’s a cesspool of every sin you Fenndish forbid and every evil that can be committed. How much of a sound mind do you think this cur has from living all that?”
“He’s sound enough to disarm you with little effort and harm on your part. In fact, it was all very controlled and to the point.”
Xerius then went on entreating her. “Imagine him thinking you’re someone he’s fought with in the ring or fought off from being treated like a skane? You couldn’t fight off someone his size or strength.”
Kiao felt frustration rising in her. “What’s your purpose,” she asked.
“I’m trying to save you,” he said with sincerity. “If there is a destination to go, I’ll escort you for free so you won’t have to travel with him. You’ve not seen what one can do when he’s off his mind.”
An image of the suicidal man entered her mind. He was feral and sick in body and soul. She remembered Soletus lying in front of her on the bed. A shiver traveled down her spine.
Oeric then spoke up “Look, I don’t want trouble, we just want to rest.”
“Then leave,” said Xerius.
“No,” said Kiao grabbing his hand. “What are you doing?”
Awkwardness descended her. Instead of letting go, she clasped her other hand around his. His face softened.
“Sister, I understand your sentiment but think about this.”
“I have because this is the second time I had to see you treated like a villain because of those scars. I’m not standing for it again. You need to stay,” she said forcing her resolve in her voice.
Her voice didn’t have any effect on him. He just tugged his hand out of her grasp and he continued to gather his things. Her suggestion wasn’t reasonable in his mind.
“I’m doing this as a show of good faith,” he explained, using the same reasoning voice he had done to Saedee when he was sick. “If I wanted to use you, I wouldn’t just leave you. Stay here and I’ll find someplace to sleep.”
“This is unfair.”
“Its fine,” he reassured her. When he regarded Xerius again, that fatherly care turned protective and threatening. He bared his teeth at Xerius. “If she’s not waiting for me in the same condition she’s in now, I will hunt you down and hurl your soul into the Maw.”
“You have my word. Diva doesn’t smile fondly on men who harm women,” stated Xerius.
Oeric gave him one more frosted look before leaving the room. Kiao picked up Xerius’s knife and handed it to him. He grunted and then the rest of the mercenary band filed in.
The female among had obviously traded beds with whoever was sleeping beside her earlier.
“Hello,” she said sitting down. “My name is Roxlyn. What’s yours?”
The woman smiled. “Kiao, that’s a nice boy’s name.”
“And a perfectly good girl’s name when you know how to wield it,” she said settling down on her back. She wanted to be left alone.
“Do you talk to your parents much?”
Kiao was taken aback by the question. She didn’t know what the woman was trying to fish for. “I write them all the time. They live in Summerset and I visited them last year.”
The woman gave Xerius an uncertain glance. “They’re quite far. How you end up with a cur for a companion?”
“For the last time, he’s First Warden Oeric’Sheldmartin. He’s one of my best friend’s father as well as a woman I admire husband.”
Roxlyn’s wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Who would marry a cur? I’ll fear being ill-treated by such a man. That woman isn’t safe with him.”
Kiao thought that herself for a bit. However, he wasn’t controlling or the slightest bit aggressive towards Cordea. What could constitute, as an argument she witnessed was a back and forth exchange of the two trying to out reason each other. The longer it went on, the more amused Cordea got with the whole thing and worked on soothing Oeric who was the one that was the most annoyed. She wasn’t afraid of him in the least. In fact, she would’ve probably smacked his shoulder for his threat.
“She’s one of the strongest women I know and I’ve never seen a man as respectful of his wife as he is. His only fault is that he’s an overprotective fussy father,” she said.
“A lot of them are. Children are innocent in their eyes,” said Xerius. “One wouldn’t hurt a child. They older they get though, that changes real fast.”
Kiao pulled up her covers. “Stop your peddling. I need him not you.”
“We just want you to think about this,” soothed Roxlyn. “I mean do you know how many people he’s hurt and killed? You should probably ask him how many he has.”
“I can tell you, he’s killed at least three men in the ring,” added Xerius
Kiao stomach twisted at that statement and the chill of death rested on her again. The man’s death clearly wasn’t sitting with her well. It was the helplessness when she couldn’t just fix someone that bothered her most. There was a limit to her abilities and she hated there was. She could bring a person back to life if she had a strong compulsion to do so. She didn’t get one when that man killed himself.
“How do you know this? Were you a spectator,” she asked.
“We crossed paths as mercenaries. He was young and stupid when I found him. I offered him a spot in my band to help wisen him up. He turned it down. When I found he was in the ring, I offered him a job again to save him from suffering. He refused. I figured it was too late by then. He became a beast and loved the thrill of the ring. Elves get like that and become savage and animal like.”
“Well he clearly isn’t,” she told him. “I’m sleepy. I’ve probably an early start tomorrow.” She rolled over with her back facing them ending the conversation feeling ill at ease.