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CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

POODIK



Toryn and his escorts reached the banks of the Fear River the next day. Sellaris was subdued and stayed away from Toryn. The Parmittans were busy digging canoes out from under concealing branches when Garyn approached Toryn.

“You seem different today,” he said. “What is it?”

“How long do I have?” Toryn asked bluntly. Garyn opened his mouth, likely to ask what Toryn meant, and then his eyes flicked to the Parmittan leader and back to Toryn.

“We will reach Voor-ik in three days,” he replied.

“And that means?”

“That is where the Voor temple to Shaitan is located,” Garyn explained truthfully. “Their place of sacrifice.”

“Three days,” Toryn repeated and tugged at his bonds. Garyn noticed and glanced at the Parmittans again. They argued with Sellaris and Lavan over the Gauntlet. Sellaris wanted to keep the wagon and the Parmittans refused to take it across the river. They insisted the oxen that towed the wagon were too short and would drown. They gave no heed to Sellaris’s protests that oxen could swim and the wagon would float. The shouting went on until the rain began. By then, some of the warriors had caught some fish from the river and cooked them over a smoky fire.

The leader, much to Sellaris’s annoyance, announced that they would make camp. She drew her sword and sliced her way into the jungle, followed by Lavan.

Garyn seemed about to speak, but shrugged instead and went to unsaddle his horse. Toryn accepted a piece of fish from one of the Parmittans that generally treated him better than the others. Toryn had missed the taste of fish. Redol bordered the sea and fish was as common a diet as cattle.

The Parmittan was a talker and chattered happily to Toryn about all number of interesting things, explaining them in detail and not caring a whit that Toryn understood not a single word. Toryn didn’t mind. The musical language was sort of soothing and his gestures and antics were amusing. The only word Toryn understood was his own name, which came out as “Toodeen”. The little fellow called himself Poodik, which Toryn had learned the first time Poodik came to speak to him. He had repeated his name ten or fifteen times and pounded on his chest in accompaniment until Toryn got the idea. After that, he had been Toryn’s shadow, albeit a noisy one.

Toryn ate and allowed his mind to wander while Poodik rambled on. He had to find a way to escape, and soon. He hoped to do so after they crossed the river. Perhaps, being so close to home, the Parmittans would not be so eager to backtrack and find him. Perhaps.

He fell asleep with Poodik telling him something indecipherable.

A hand on his shoulder awakened him. He opened his eyes and saw Poodik’s pale face hovering over him. For once the Parmittan was quiet, which should have alerted him.

“Leave me alone, Poodik,” Toryn said and groaned. “It’s still dark and I’m tired.” Poodik clamped a hand over Toryn’s mouth and looked around furtively. Toryn, puzzled, sat up and pushed Poodik’s hand away. Poodik looked at him with an intent expression.

“Gum wid be,” he said carefully. Having never heard Poodik say anything even partially understandable, Toryn was curious enough to get up and follow the Voor. Poodik beckoned him into the jungle by making a windmill with his arm until Toryn thought the bones in his shoulder were going to separate.

They went noiselessly into the darkness, pausing once as the cry of a hunting cat cut through the night. When Poodik judged the beast to be no threat, they hurried on. Toryn began to question the wisdom of following the Voor. When they reached an area where the moonlight sliced through the trees in narrow beams, they stopped. They waited until Toryn could stand it no longer. He opened his mouth to ask what they were doing when Garyn stepped into a ray of moonlight.

He held up a hand to forestall questions and beckoned Toryn forward. Toryn shrugged followed, realizing that he could be looking at a golden opportunity to escape. Poodik had led him a goodly distance from the encampment and Garyn should be easily overpowered. He just needed to make certain there were no other Parmittans watching them from the jungle’s cover. Poodik was also an unknown. He knew the other Parmittans for powerful warriors and assumed that Poodik would not have been chosen for the mission if he were not just as skilled as the others. Garyn turned and headed for the river. Toryn followed and Poodik brought up the rear.

A canoe floated in the water, tethered to a tree on the bank. Garyn motioned for Toryn to get in, and he did so, curious. He sat down carefully and wondered if it were possible to swim with one’s hands tied together. He hoped he would not have to find out; he had a suspicion several horrifying creatures lurked in the murky water. Garyn and Poodik joined him in the boat and Poodik pushed off.

The river carried them for a distance until Toryn could see the grey of clouds and a few patches of dark sky through the canopy of overhanging branches.

“What are we doing?” he finally asked. Poodik apparently took his words as a signal to turn on the sound. He chattered and gestured and dug the oars out of the bottom of the boat. He rowed while he talked. After listening to him chatter for a time, Garyn silenced him with an upraised hand and a few words of Parmittan, or whatever language it was that Poodik spoke.

“Poodik decided he did not want you sacrificed to Shaitan,” Garyn explained. That launched Poodik into a new frenzy.

“Shaitan!” he hissed, looking around superstitiously. He made stabbing gestures and things equally gruesome, and then spat over the side, glaring angrily. It was evident that Shaitan had no follower in this warrior.

“And you?” Toryn asked Garyn, who shrugged and smiled bitterly.

“I think it is time I started to live my own life,” he said.

“You are helping me to escape?” He could not quite believe it. Garyn nodded.

“Poodik and I will help you out of the jungle, but then it is up to you.” Garyn took out a dagger and cut Toryn’s bonds. After a moment of hesitation, he handed Toryn the jade-hilted sword.

“I thought you would keep it,” Toryn said, caressing the hilt lightly.

“Are you willing to give it up?” Garyn asked.

“No.”

“I didn’t think so.” He smiled. Toryn slowly worked on his hands and wrists. They were so stiff and swollen that he could scarcely move them. He reflected wryly that he had not been tied in all his nineteen years, yet in the past few months had been tied so often that he would bear the scars forever.

“Will they follow us?” he asked after a while. Garyn stared at him intently for a long moment, and then reached down beneath his feet. A bundle had been concealed beneath a spotted fur. Garyn pulled the fur aside to reveal a wooden cask. Toryn blanched. He had stolen the Gauntlet!

“They’ll follow us.” Toryn groaned. “Can this boat move any faster? Where were they taking that thing, anyway?”

“Sheol. The stronghold of the Dark Master, High Priest of Shaitan.”

“You seem a decent fellow,” Toryn said. “How did you get mixed up with Reed and the rest of his wretched followers?”

“You refer to Sellaris?” Garyn smiled without humor. “We grew up together. I think I’ve been in love with her since birth. She, Lavan and I played together as children and Sellaris was the undisputed leader. She got us into a lot of trouble as kids. One of my first memories is of her talking me into stealing a blackberry pie from a neighbor. My father tanned my behind for that one, but I never learned.

“When she turned eighteen, I begged her to marry me. We could settle down and be happy forever.” Garyn looked into the slowly eddying water and grimaced. “She laughed and said I was only a child and that she was meant for better things than being a goatherd’s wife. I was young and undaunted. I continued to pursue her until, two years later, she came to me and said, ‘Let’s go to Silver and find our fortunes! Everyone knows the land there is littered with gold and jewels. We will return to Bodor rich, and join the nobility. We will have servants at our beck and call and eat from gold plates.’

“I could not tell her that she was all I wanted; she was too excited and I was afraid she would go to Silver without me. In that, I was right.” He sighed and picked up a leaf that had fallen into the boat. He began to tear it in half down the central vein.

“She took control, as always. Lavan and I followed her to Silver, but it was not as she hoped. The land there is indeed littered with gold, jewels, and silver, but the men who rule Silver keep their fists tightly wrapped around their wealth. Mining is strictly controlled and even streaming for gold requires a permit. We tried that for a while and did quite well, but Sellaris was not content. It was too boring a life for her, and hard, so she took us to Penkangum. I do not know what she sought there, but we found nothing. We traveled to Terris and even across the sea to the Islands. Still she was not satisfied, although we stayed there for nearly a year. At that time, she fell in love with a Redolian traveler, from whom she learned to swordfight. I very nearly left her there in my heartbroken rage, but I kept hoping she would tire of the man and send him on his way. I thought it an answer to my prayers when they finally broke it off. He returned to a quiet life in Redol and Sellaris still would have nothing to do with settling down. I suppose she did not really love him, or perhaps I just wish it to be so. Perhaps she thinks of him, even now, and intends to go to him one day.” The leaf in Garyn’s hand was a small pile of green bits and he turned his palm downward to scatter them across the water. They swirled and disappeared as Poodik rowed the boat forward.

“We returned to Kaneelis, in Terris, and it was there that we met Reed. He said he needed someone to pick up some horses in Tar-Tan and take them to southern Bodor. He was willing to pay, and well. Sellaris was all for it, and so was I. I hoped that once we returned to Bodor, I could persuade Sellaris to stay there and finally marry me. Is this boring you?”

“Not at all,” Toryn said. “It’s interesting. I take it Sellaris was still not ready to become a docile wife?”

Garyn snorted wryly. “Far from it. Tar-Tan is a barbaric country and we had trouble from the instant we entered it. Men wanted to buy Sellaris, they wanted to keep the horses, raiders tried to steal the horses once we had them—it was a nightmare and Sellaris thrived on it. We delivered the horses, returned to Reed, got our money, and then Sellaris requested another job. He gave us another assignment, and another, and another, until we were taking the horses from the very borders of Akarska. The more dangerous the job, the better Sellaris liked it. We have been running horses for four years now.”

“Four years?!” Toryn exclaimed, aghast. “How many horses?”

“Not as many as you might think. Akarskans are remarkably tight-fisted when it comes to their beasts, as you know. Sometimes we had as few as three; once I think we had eight. On one occasion we ran across an Akarskan hunting party. We left the horses and barely escaped with our lives.” Toryn nodded. Akarskan Hunters had a tendency to kill first and ask questions of the corpses.

“Reed sometimes sent men to help us if it was dangerous, especially when we were close to Akarska,” Garyn continued. “It did not take Sellaris long to show them she was the one in control. If they had ideas otherwise, there was always Lavan to watch over her, and me, of course. With the coin Reed has paid us we can return to Bodor fairly wealthy. Not enough to be nobles, but enough that we will never have to worry about money again. But adventure calls to Sellaris like a lover. Once she got a taste, she keeps going back for more. I don’t think she will ever quit.”

Garyn was silent, obviously thinking of the girl he had left. Toryn wondered about Alyn, suddenly. He hoped she was all right. He thought of Keev trying to seduce her and pictured a hundred objects flying at the prince while a wild-haired Alyn screamed invectives. Yes, she would be fine until he went back to rescue her, if she had not already escaped on her own.

“What are you thinking about?” Garyn asked.

“Alyn. The blond Akarskan girl. She was taken by Keev.”

“Why would that make you smile?”

“I fear for Keev.”

“Akarskan.” Garyn nodded. “I don’t think you need to fret for her. People of the south have not felt Akarskan wrath often, but when they do the story spreads like wildfire. They are greatly feared, especially by those who have a few stolen horses in their stables. I pity Prince Keev if she happens to discover his stables. Will she kill him?” Toryn had not been worried before, but after Garyn’s comment, he was. He knew how crazy Alyn was when it came to horse-theft. She probably would kill Keev, and Silver would be plunged into civil war once the remaining brothers heard there was land up for grabs. He could picture it all with horrific clarity.

“I certainly hope not. What did you do with the horses once you reached Bodor?” he asked to take his mind off the vision.

“We turned them over to Reed or his associates. I know now that his men were Parmittans, although not always the Voor. They were usually from the Zad-Ir tribe, who live on the other side of the South Mountains. They most likely took them over the Ven-Horns. From there it is anyone’s guess, though I would assume they were taken to the Dark Master.” Toryn opened his mouth and Garyn smiled and held up a hand.

“Don’t ask. I don’t know anything about him, except that Reed obeys his every whim, and everyone else obeys Reed. I have the feeling that Reed is king in Ven-Kerrick only because of a plot of the Dark Master’s. Whatever his plans are, they cannot be for the good of anyone but the Dark Master. As far as I know, he owes allegiance only to Shaitan.”

Poodik, unable to stand it any longer, broke his silence with a long monologue, gesturing at the sky, which had begun to spit rain once more. There was a slight breeze on the river, which actually managed to cool them somewhat, as well as drive away the clouds of bugs.

“Can you understand him?” Toryn asked Garyn.

“A few words.” Garyn smiled. “He is talking about the rain and our journey. He says if we follow the river too far, we will be in trouble. There is a veeranga.”

“A what?”

“Waterfall.”

“Oh. Wonderful,” Toryn said with a groan. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“I’m not sure. I plan to follow Poodik. He should know where we want to go.”

“He should know? Haven’t you told him where we want to go?”

“I would if I knew. I have only been here a couple of times, and then only to the village of Voor-ik. Which, by the way, we have to get past tomorrow without being spotted.”

“How are we going to manage that?” Toryn asked, becoming less pleased by the minute.

“Poodik has a plan,” Garyn assured him.

“Poodik.” Toryn sighed, looking at the happily chattering little warrior. “Great.” He curled up the blanket that Garyn had provided and tried to get some sleep.

When he awoke the sunlight filtered down through the overhang. It was quiet except for the slight creak of the boat and the soft splash of the oars. Poodik was asleep, curled in the bottom of the boat in what looked to be a very cramped position. Garyn rowed lazily and he smiled at Toryn. His shirt was on the seat beside him and his chest muscles rippled as he moved. Toryn raised an eyebrow and Garyn stopped rowing long enough to reach under the seat and toss Toryn some of the orange flowers petals.

“We brought a supply. If they are too dry, soak them in water for a while.” The insects had been awake; Toryn found several bite marks when he took off his own shirt. One little creature busily sucked on his arm and he angrily swatted it off, leaving a large smear of blood in its place. He rubbed on the petals, grimacing at the scent, but it was better than being eaten alive.

“Do you want me to row?” he asked and tossed the flowers aside.

“Wait until Poodik wakes up so we can all trade places,” Garyn suggested. It was not a long wait and Garyn rowed to shore at Poodik’s request. They got out and stretched their legs while Poodik faded into the jungle. When he returned, he held a pole about ten feet long. He also carried a large branch bearing clumps of luscious-looking purple berries, which he handed over to Garyn before sitting down and carving into the tip of the pole with his curved knife.

The berries were delicious, so Toryn and Garyn stuffed themselves. After Poodik had whittled the tip of the pole into a wicked, barbed spear, he set it aside and went back to the canoe. He dug in his pack and came up with two leather loincloths of the type he wore. He presented these to the others and began another monologue.

“He says they will be cooler,” Garyn translated, but Toryn had already climbed out of his stifling pants and into the scrap of leather. He rubbed some more of the petals on his legs and looked at Garyn, who was similarly outfitted. They both looked almost native, especially after Poodik chuckled and tied some feathers in their hair, after which he chuckled some more.

They returned to the boat and Toryn could not decide whether to wear his sword or leave it on the bottom of the boat. He pictured the canoe capsizing and his sword lying on the bottom of the river. He strapped it on, paranoia winning out, and took over the rowing. It felt good to be able to use his muscles again and he needed to get the strength back into his sore arms.

Poodik used his new spear ingeniously. He stood in the boat, poised to throw, and waited until a suitable target swam by. He stabbed down and, without even rocking the boat, drew up a shining silver fish. When he had three fat fish, he cleaned them with his knife, built a small fire in the bottom of the canoe—after wetting the floor and laying down a barrier of thick leaves—and roasted them on his spear. When they were cooked, he used the edge of his knife to scrape the burning twigs into the water, and then washed the ashes out with handfuls of river water.

“You’ve done this before,” Toryn commented as he sank his teeth into one of the tasty fish. The three of them devoured their lunch and dropped the bones into the river. They lay back, feeling comfortably full. They took turns rowing until Poodik signaled that they approached the village of Voor-ik. It was easy to recognize because the No River joined the Fear at that point. The current became stronger where the No flowed in to add its power.

As they neared the village they stopped and Poodik made Garyn smear some tar-like sap in his hair to darken it. Garyn sighed, but did so, covering his brown hair. They floated on and at last reached a set of logs that protruded from the bank into the water, obviously a makeshift dock to which several canoes were already tied. A number of men and women were at the docks or in the water, and they all scrambled out onto the shore when the canoe came into view. The women ran to hide in the foliage while the men hefted spears and shouted. Poodik steered the boat up to the dock and called out. The men quickly put down their weapons and cheered and the women came slowly out from the trees. Their faces were covered in veils made out of green leaves and multicolored feathers. Only their eyes peered out from behind the colorful masks.

“What did he say?” Toryn murmured.

“Something about warriors upriver bringing a sacrifice,” Garyn replied softly. Toryn looked at the joyful crowd with disgust. Poodik hissed at them and Garyn quickly repeated the message to Toryn.

“Do not speak at all, no matter what.” Toryn nodded just as the canoe bumped against the wooden pilings and Poodik hopped out, speaking jovially while gesturing at hurricane speed. The Voor nodded and looked at Toryn and Garyn solemnly before they grinned and clapped Poodik on the back. Garyn shouldered their gear while Toryn carried the Gauntlet-case concealed by its fur wrapping. They were ushered down a well-trodden path to the village where Poodik gave his news to what seemed to be the town council. Toryn and Garyn hung back, trying to stay out of the light, which was not hard under the canopy of thick branches.

No one paid them more than cursory attention except a group of giggling girls that wore leaf and feather veils, a couple of strips of leather, and very little else. The girls spoke amongst themselves and edged closer, all in a group. Toryn smiled at them, which sent them fleeing into the thick trees with shrieks and giggles. Toryn chuckled and glanced at Garyn, who also grinned.

The crowd cheered and then hurried off to do whatever it was they had been doing. Poodik returned to Toryn and Garyn and beckoned for them to follow. They reluctantly did so, walking across the hard-packed dirt of the village. Voor-ik was made of several dozen small huts built from wood and branches, scattered at random inside a crudely made wall of sharpened stakes. The palisade would be effective in keeping out unwanted jungle animals.

They passed a large hut in the center of the village, in front of which stood an altar made of black marble threaded with green. Upon the stone rested a jeweled dagger and manacles of gold crusted with gems. Toryn could not repress a shudder as he stared at it. He pictured himself manacled to the stone spread eagled, with his chest bared to the sky and the dagger poised over his heart. Garyn blanched and glanced at Toryn. Perhaps he, like Toryn, wondered if Poodik could really be trusted. Perhaps it was all a trap. The little warrior led them to a small hut built near the wall, next to a tall tree wrapped in yellow-flowered vines. He entered and beckoned them to follow.

The interior was small and rustic, and very dark until Poodik drew aside the animal skins that covered the cutout windows. A fire pit was in the center of the room and the only furnishings were a pile of skins that made up a pallet bed, a small knee high table, and a crude set of shelves against one wall.

“Poodik says we can speak quietly now,” Garyn murmured as he sat down on the pallet. Toryn preferred to stand by the exit, fingers nervously caressing his sword hilt.

“What did he tell them?”

“He told them you and I had taken a vow of silence until the sacrifice. I guess it is a common practice.”

“What happens now?”

Garyn posed the question to Poodik in a broken form of Voor and Poodik chattered quietly for a few moments before he went to look out one of the windows.

“We wait until the rain begins,” Garyn told Toryn. “Then we get out.”

It took less than an hour for the drizzle to start, but it seemed like a week to Toryn. He paced impatiently and glanced out at the village now and again. When the rain started, he was pleased to see the men and women flee for their huts; the rain washed off the insect repellent. Staying indoors was the best way to keep it on.

“Let’s go,” Toryn said and Poodik nodded. He had been gathering items and putting them into a leather sack the entire time. He slung it over his shoulder. They went out into the moisture and made their way quietly to the southern gates of the village. They were open, and guarded by a single warrior. Poodik spoke quietly with Garyn and then stepped out to greet the guard. Garyn led Toryn to the other side of the complex, circling around to the rear of the guard. Poodik talked loudly to the man and waved his arms, gesturing comically. The guard laughed and Poodik’s antics became even more outrageous. Garyn and Toryn slipped behind the preoccupied guard and out the gate, unnoticed. Toryn was thankful the leaves were wet and made no sound under their feet.

They entered the jungle and ran quickly in away from the village for long minutes before stopping to catch their breath. Poodik appeared moments later, grinning happily. He said only one word and started off, so Garyn and Toryn trotted along after him. They did not stop until nearly dusk, when they reached the river. Poodik bade them wait and disappeared upriver, traveling through the thick cover that lined the banks.

Shortly thereafter, a canoe slid silently up to the shore in front of them, startling Toryn nearly out of his wits. Poodik grinned from the canoe and waved. Toryn and Garyn climbed in gratefully. Toryn gladly stowed the Gauntlet case—just carrying the thing made him nervous. Once again, they floated downstream until they judged themselves safely away, and then rowed in shifts throughout the night. By dawn, they were far away from Voor-ik.

The remainder of their trip downriver was largely uneventful. They sometimes saw bands of Voor on the shore and to these they merely waved a greeting, holding aloft knife and spear. They were not troubled.

When they reached the point where the Green River joined the Fear, Poodik brought the canoe in to the southern bank and climbed out.

“What is it?” Toryn asked. Poodik was already talking and it took Garyn a moment to digest it all.

“The Green River joins this river ahead and it becomes too fast and rough to travel by canoe. Poodik says from here we walk.”

“Good. I’m tired of sitting on my rear,” Toryn replied. “Although I could deal with the sitting if we were horseback.” Garyn nodded. Poodik inquired, so Garyn tried to explain Toryn’s comment. Poodik looked thoughtful and then hurried to stash the canoe.

Poodik led them through the jungle and it was much more difficult than the trip to Voor-ik had been. There they had followed an old path, almost a road, that had been cut in ancient times from Ruby to Voor-ik, but here there was no sign of civilization at all. They slipped into untouched wilderness, forced to crawl at times through the thick undergrowth. Poodik pulled out his knife and hacked a path. Toryn and Garyn tugged used their swords to assist him, but Toryn was careful not to cut anything larger than small branches. He did not want his favorite sword nicked and dulled.

“Do you have any idea where we are going?” Toryn asked once when they stopped for a rest. He adjusted the leather straps that cut into his shoulders. The Gauntlet was not exactly heavy, but it was awkward, and Toryn had rigged a sling for it in order to carry it like a knapsack. One corner of the wooden case rubbed against his back just above his right buttock. He hitched the burden again, but after a moment, it settled back to press the growing sore spot. Toryn sighed.

“Thalarii, Poodik says,” Garyn replied, catching his breath.

“Where is that?”

“I have no idea.” He looked at Poodik, who carried on a one-sided conversation with a very large bird perched in a tree. The bird was bright pink and violet with patches of blue. Its tail was fully three feet long. Toryn wished Redwing were with them. Perhaps he could have mentally conversed with the bird to see if it knew what lay ahead. Toryn looked out at the rain, feeling the sorrow he had tried to forget in the past few days. He glanced over at Garyn and saw the same expression of sadness. Mourning Sellaris as I mourn the Falaran, Toryn thought. What a pair we are.

He sighed and swatted a persistent insect while the rain dripped down his face and body. It would be a long trip.
 

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE


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