Ch. 4: A Pathway Cleared
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
When Cuauhtérroc awoke that morning, the Queen Ahlinda was docked at the Cer Halcyon harbor, its decks bustling with activity. He roamed into the busyness on the main deck, munching on some dried apples that had been set out for him and marveling at the grandeur of the city. Slowly, his chewing came to a stop, the apples forgotten, as he realized that the city alone contained more people than the entire lands of his kin. How am I going to find my way in such a large place? It is like my jungle home, but made of buildings.
The harbor was a vast spread of land covered with warehouses, derricks, wooden cranes, and endless docks that staged innumerable ships. Teams of horses, oxen, and other beasts of burden hitched to wagons and carts of all sizes were aligned along the shore, waiting to off-load their wares or take on new supplies.
Beyond the harbor were the stone ramparts of Cer Halcyon, creeping up the hills to the east and sprawling for miles to the west. Cuauhtérroc saw the most imposing buildings inside those walls—enormous, detailed, and colorful—buildings he could never have imagined.
The savage pulled a folded sheet of parchment from his trousers pocket. It contained directions to the Pathway Adventurers’ Guild, both illustrated and written, for anyone he might call on for help. He had learned enough of the Common tongue to communicate, but he was far from being able to read it.
Alton Myrick called out to Cuauhtérroc from across the ship, then hustled up to him, dodging a maze of teamsters along the way. “Good morning Cuauht, did you have a good sleep?”
“Alton Myrick, I say dees meeny times, ‘Call me Térroc or call me Cuauhtérroc; do not call me Cuauht.’ Cuauh means dees…” he explained, tapping the panther pelt on his shoulders. “Térroc is dees name my father geeve me. I do not call you Al.”
“But you could. It would be shorter than saying ‘Alton Myrick’ all the time.” The cassock shrugged and clapped Cuauhtérroc on the back. “Anyway, the Queen Ahlinda is about ready to depart, so we need to hop off.” He spread his arms toward the bustling harbor below. “Welcome to Cer Halcyon; this is where your journeys begin. Do you have the directions I gave you?”
Cuauhtérroc nodded and showed him the parchment.
“Good. Now, when you get to Pathway, be sure to ask for Eselinda. She has blonde hair—that’s the color of bananas. She’ll get you fixed up. All right? Okay…well, may Valor be with you, Cuauhtérroc; I gotta go or I’ll miss my next ship. I’ll keep you in my prayers, Cuauht. The Maker be with you!” His final few words trailed off as he dashed down the gangplank and became just another bobbing head in the sea of humanity.
There was only one thing now to do. With more courage than he had thought it would require, the panther warrior of the Audric Jungle stepped down the inclined plank and onto the dock.
He was now on strange land.
Once among the throng, he felt even more alone. The streets swarmed with people, men of every kind—short and rotund, tall and lanky, hair like bananas, oranges, dirt, and many other shades besides. Some of them were dark like him, but they were not warriors. Rather, they were performing laborious tasks under the command of the fairer men. Slavery was common among the warring tribes of his homeland, but Cuauhtérroc noted that these Audric men weren’t shackled in chains as was the case in the jungle. Still, they were forced to do hard labor while their fair-skinned masters mostly yelled at them. Everyone seemed to be speaking some form of the Common tongue Myrick had taught him, but so quickly and with such an accent that Cuauhtérroc could barely decipher any of it.
He stood there on the dock for some time, trying to absorb it all, for a warrior always knows his surroundings. But after three different crewmen tried to involve him in the heavy lifting, Cuauhtérroc decided to move on. Perhaps inside the city, it wouldn’t be so hectic.
As he approached the city walls, the crowds flowed more thickly, until right at the Cargo Gate, where everyone came to a complete standstill and waited to be admitted. Cuauhtérroc stared upward in awe at the looming edifice towering fifty feet above him. The sheer size of the city was beginning to overwhelm him.
An hour later, Cuauhtérroc finally arrived at the gate. The guard looked him up and down, paying special attention to his earlobes. “Name?” he grunted abruptly after finding no evidence that he was a runaway slave.
Cuauhtérroc peered beyond the guard at the teeming throng inside the city, dispelling any thoughts of it being less frenetic inside.
The guard, only two hours into his shift, was already losing patience. He cleared his throat loudly and tapped Cuauhtérroc on the shoulder. “Hey! You got a name, darkie?”
Cuauhtérroc refocused on the guard. “Yes. I have dees name.”
“Well, let’s have it, darkie, or you ain’t gettin’ in the city.”
“I am Cuauhtérroc, son of Cuauhtoolah, panther warrior of dees Audric Jungle. I am a free man.” Myrick had taught him to say that.
The guard snorted with indifference while he scribbled on a pad, then he tore the top sheet off and handed it to Cuauhtérroc. “Whatever. Here’s your pass. Pay your toll at the next booth.”
He took the paper from the guard’s dirty fingers and ambled up to the next station, where another guard stamped it and demanded two copper marks. Fortunately, Myrick had supplied him with a small amount of money before setting out.
With Myrick’s directions unfolded in front of him, Cuauhtérroc cautiously advanced through the crowded streets. He frequently bumped into others, and while most people merely adjusted their path slightly and kept right on going, some gave him an angry stare or a mumbled expletive. Twice he saw a man stagger out of a tavern and vomit into the street.
“What ees wrong weeth dees man?” he asked aloud. He knew of several plants and three mushrooms that would turn out a man’s stomach like that. Myrick had named them as poisons.
A nearby man shrugged. “I dunno. Too much ale, I reckon.”
The panther warrior made a mental note. Ale is a poison.
He studied his crudely drawn map and turned it around several times, trying to compare it with the winding street before him. No matter which way he held it, the line on the map was straight but the street was crooked.
Cuauhtérroc frowned at the parchment and shoved it back into his pocket. His instincts would have to find the way. He had been in denser forests than this, far from his village, and had never gotten lost. His panther hunt—he touched the pelt sub-consciously—lasted for two full days, and he had hunted the animal far from home and had slept in places he had never before seen. Even then he found his way home, carrying the dead cat across his blood-soaked shoulders. It had been a good fight…
Yet another pedestrian bumped into Cuauhtérroc, and the bump jostled him from his memories. “Ek-scuse, me,” he said, “I look for dees pl—”
The man had already walked off.
Onward the savage trudged, keeping a sharp eye open for some obvious sign. Myrick had mentioned something about making a left turn onto a major street, but he couldn’t remember its name. It fascinated him to no end that streets even had names.
Finally, after nearly an hour of little progress, he found someone kind enough to assist, a young man in dirty clothes and a hooded cloak. His chary eyes shifted left and right. “Yeah, ya mug, whatcha need?”
“I look for dees place called Pathway. I have dees drawing, but I cannot read.”
The man gave Cuauhtérroc’s map a quick glance. “Yeah, it’s square. Just trip a two-block up da sharm, counter da grates four, den lock a regal. It’s downer.” He sniffed and held out a hand.
Cuauhtérroc stared at him for a moment. “What deed you say?”
“Ya no flakin’. Look…go two streets thattaway, an’ then take a left. Ya pass four sewer vents, an’ then take a right. Pathway is on the corner there. Ya can’t miss it.” Again, he sniffed and held out his hand.
Cuauhtérroc shook his hand as Myrick had taught him, and thanked him kindly for the instruction.
“Naw, ya mug, slap a two-per on me.”
“Cripe. Gimme two silver, man.”
“‘Cause I slipped you some stash, right. It wasn’t much, so I figger two silver is square.”
“I give you dees coins because you tell me dees way to go?”
“That’s it, ya mug. It’s what I do.” The man’s eyes darted about as he peeled back his cloak to reveal a dagger in his belt. “Don’t stiff me, see.”
“I deed not know eet was your job to help people find dees way.” Cuauhtérroc reached into his pouch and retrieved two silver coins for the man, little knowing he had given up a day’s wages.
An hour later, he was lost again. And hungry. Four times he passed by a large, pretentious building with a host of people flowing in and out of it. Every time he passed by, the aromas of grilled meats greeted his wide nostrils, and his stomach began to growl at him. At last it got the better of him, and he stepped inside.
Another hour later, Cuauhtérroc emerged with a full belly and a nearly empty pocket. He strolled about the streets again and discovered a building made entirely of glass and shaped like many of the temples in his homeland. Alton Myrick mentioned a building like this. Instead of an altar, though, atop this building was a larger-than-life picture of an aged man wearing a conical cap and holding a long stick.
To the savage’s amazement and growing distress, the man in the picture moved, and a bolt of lightning shot forth from the end of his stick. Then the picture changed to that of a roiling ball of fire descending down upon a war band of scaly black creatures. Knots formed in the warrior’s stomach as painful memories of fire’s destruction resurfaced. It changed again, this time to spell out several words, blinking in bright colors and sparkles.
A finely-dressed man passed in front of him, a strong scent of spices wafting from him. Cuauhtérroc wrinkled up his nose at the odd smells and stared after the man as he stopped briefly to speak with a red-haired woman. Cuauhtérroc thought one or the other might be able to provide him some final assistance, for he knew he was close.
Before Cuauhtérroc could gain their attention, the man had walked off, leaving the red-haired woman in a strange sort of daze. Cuauhtérroc noticed that her eyes were closed and an odd smile had formed across her lips. Did the man put a sleeping hex on her? Is he a shaman? She could fall over! Quickly, Cuauhtérroc rushed to the woman’s aid, hoping to prevent her injury, but when she opened her eyes, Cuauhtérroc stopped dead still and stared.
Her eyes were the most brilliant green Cuauhtérroc had ever seen, and with them opened wide at him, it was as if he were gazing into two emerald pools, like the clearest ocean water that fills the crevices of the rocky coast west of Mazachtitlán. He thought she might be what the fair-skinned folk would call pretty, especially the eyes. But the sprinkling of tiny reddish-brown dots across her nose and cheeks were strange to him.
“Ek-scuse me, female,” Cuauhtérroc said awkwardly, “I am looking for dees place called…Pathway. Do you know where eet ees?”
The red-haired woman smirked at him, but with little other emotion, she pointed and said, “Just up the street there.”
Acting on previous example, Cuauhtérroc held two silver coins out to her and thanked her for her assistance. With a shake of her head, she refused his offer.
The woman’s directions brought Cuauhtérroc before a massive white stone building. Marble columns stood sentry along its front, and tall steps led up to a pair of heavy oaken doors set deep into an alcove. Decorative signposts near the street gave the names of many different organizations contained within, but Pathway was his only concern. He pulled out the parchment Myrick had given him and compared the letters until he found P-A-T-H-W-A-Y. There it is.
Cuauhtérroc paused to gather himself. His mission was nearing an end, the weeks of travel would seen be rewarded. His army was in there, and he would bring them to the jungle to slay the Amurraks.
With deep satisfaction, the panther warrior ascended the grand stairs and pushed through the heavy doors. Inside was a large room with a checkered marble floor and smaller interior marble columns. Every sound echoed through the hall and gave the space a cavernous aura. Suddenly, he felt very small. A marble staircase in the back of the room went to the upper levels, and elaborately carved doors led to other rooms on all sides. A few people milled about, talking in hushed tones or quietly padding from one side to the other.
After a few minutes wandering around, Cuauhtérroc finally found an ornate door with a gold-inlaid plaque that read:
The Best Path to Freeblading
He recognized the first word and gave the polished brass handle a twist.
The interior of the room gleamed in a bright white that dazzled Cuauhtérroc’s eyes for a moment. At the far end was a large desk painted in the same white, with “Pathway” emblazoned across the front in bold blue. A woman sat at the desk busily writing in a tablet. Standing by the large desk with a hand on her hip was a blonde woman.
Cuauhtérroc hurried up to her, and as he approached, the woman recoiled slightly and held out her hand as if to defend herself. “Ek-scuse me,” he began, “Are you…Ees…Eesaleenda?” She smelled of flowers.
The blonde woman looked him up and down, making no pretense about her disgust. “You’ve obviously mistaken me for someone who gives a rink.” She took another step back from him, keeping him at arm’s length.
“Alton Myrick tell me speak weeth dees woman weeth dees hair like bananas. She ees called Eesaleenda.”
The woman behind the desk giggled. “Hair like bananas, huh? Well, that would be Eselinda. I’ll get her for you. Just have a seat.”
An hour had passed when a door to the right of the desk opened, and a different blonde woman in a red dress entered the room. Her hair definitely bore a striking resemblance to a bunch of bananas. With a slight tilt of her head, she motioned for him to follow her.
Eselinda led the savage into a back room less brightly lit and asked him to take a seat in front of a much smaller desk. She sat behind the desk and began interviewing the panther warrior on his past experiences, views on freeblading, family ties, and several other subjects that elicited many painful memories.
When the interview was finished, Eselinda stood. “All right, I will need to get this processed. It might be a few days before we call on you. Where are you staying?”
Cuauhtérroc stared blankly at her for a moment. “I do not know.”
Eselinda grimaced. “I’ll tell you what; let me check the other freeblade groups that are forming, and see if any of them have need of a savage warrior like yourself.”
She left Cuauhtérroc sitting there not entirely certain what to do next. When she finally returned, she grabbed a green canvas satchel from her desk. “Come with me, Cuauhtérroc. I think I have just the group for you.”
Cuauhtérroc followed her down a narrow hallway and into similar room. A middle-aged man sat behind the desk in this room, and two women sat in front of his desk. They both looked familiar.
“Bertrand,” Eselinda said to the man, “This is Cuauhtérroc of the Audric Jungle. Here’s his dossier.” She handed Bertrand the satchel, which he opened and read, looking up at Cuauhtérroc several times and nodding.
“Fine. This is fine, Ese. Thanks.” Bertrand sat and quietly reviewed the file. “Cuauhtérroc,” he said, motioning to a wooden chair in the corner, “pull up a chair. No…I mean bring the chair over here. In front of the desk. That’s it. Good…now, have a seat. No…I mean sit down.”
After Eselinda took her leave, offering a “good roll of the Bones” to the three applicants, Bertrand cleared his throat. “I think introductions are in order. This is Celindria Matherthorne, reeve of the Greenbrier Forest,” he said, pointing to the woman with thick, pale blonde hair, glossy red lips and a deepening scowl across her forehead. Then he indicated the redhead with wide, hopeful green eyes. “And this is Cora O’Banion, songsage of Lorenvale outside of Cer Vedrys. Ladies, this is Cuauhtérroc, panther warrior of the Audric Jungle. It would seem that the Bones have determined you three should be together.”
Celindria glowered and crossed her arms. Then she stood up abruptly, and with a nervous glance back at Cuauhtérroc, she approached the desk. “Bertrand,” she said in a low whisper, “did you say the Audric Jungle?”
“Then he’s…a savage?”
“I would presume so. Is there a problem?”
Waves of wariness washed over Celindria as her defenses began to mount. But it was not without good reason. Audric savages were well-known for their brutality. Each tribe was continually at war with the next, killing indiscriminately, raping women, eating human flesh, bathing in blood…the atrocities attached to the equatorial tribes were numerous. “Well, do you really think it’s a good idea to pair a savage with a couple of young women? I mean…well…look at him. I think he wants to eat us.”
Bertrand frowned at the reeve. “You will find that people in Cer Halcyon are not nearly so prejudiced as small-minded, country folk.”
“I’m not small-minded,” Celindria retorted. “And you know I’m right.”
“Miss O’Banion,” Betrand said, looking over at Cora, “do you have a problem traveling with this Audric?”
Cora gave Cuauhtérroc a fleeting glance and smiled. “I already bumped into him on the street. He seems nice enough. There’s no question we may encounter some resistance when we find who stole Calloway’s goods, so I would be glad to have some muscle on this team. And he’s certainly got plenty of that!”
Celindria rolled her eyes. “Spare me,” she muttered.
Bertrand laid his pen on the desk and folded his hands. “Cuauhtérroc came recommended by Ese’s brother Alton Myrick, who is a highly respected cassock in the Bastion of Faith and a missionary to the Audric Jungle. I would not have allowed this pairing if I didn’t trust his judgment.”
Cora nodded. The Bastion of Faith was a sect famous for its warlike approach to worshiping the Maker. “Defenders” they called themselves, as they worked for the eradication of dragonkin, the dragon-worshiping sects, and all those who aided them. That missionaries would be recruiting from the warrior tribes of the Audric Jungle made perfect sense.
“Are you certain he is safe?” Celindria asked with a stern glare, then she lowered her voice. “Is he house-trained?”
“If you are questioning our decision,” Bertrand replied with no attempt to hide his impatience, “you may certainly take your leave, but you will forfeit your standing here. No, I cannot guarantee your safety. Commissioned freeblading is inherently risky. We do not assume the danger will originate from within your own company, but it can happen. It does happen from time to time.”
It wasn’t the answer Celindria had expected and certainly not what she hoped for, but there it was. There was nothing left to do, so she sat back down in her chair with an undignified huff.
In response, Cora stood and held out her hand. “Welcome to my company, Cuauhtérroc. I’ll be glad to have you by my side, and I’m sure Celindria will come around before long. Now, let’s see if you can help us find a missing wagon.”
Cuauhtérroc squinted at her, not understanding. “What is dees wagon?”
Bertrand explained, “Miss O’Banion has accepted a commission to locate a wagon of trade goods that has gone missing in a small town about three days’ ride east of here, somewhere in The Grottoes. When the call was put forth to fill the commission, Celindria joined her almost immediately. But there were no others showing interest, and we cannot form a legitimate group with less than three. We prefer a minimum of four or five, but will allow three in certain circumstances…and this, I think, is one of those. The case seems rather simple. Find a missing wagon and its contents, bring it to its owner in Westmeade out in the Duchy of Alikon, and then he pays you the stated reward.”
The panther warrior still didn’t understand. I am here to build an army. Myrick told me to come to Pathway to gain this army. I don’t have time to go wandering about looking for lost things. And certainly not with two frail women who should be at home taking care of their children.
“So…Cuauhtérroc,” Bertrand prodded, “are you in?”
“Am I een what?”
“Are you willing to help Cora find this missing wagon?”
“Please help me, Cuauhtérroc,” Cora pleaded. “I can’t do this alone. I need a skilled warrior to fight my battles. Celindria has talent for tracking down lost things, but she and I can’t do this if we don’t have at least one other person in the company. It’s been two days now, and the stolen goods may already be on the black market. Please?”
For a second time Cuauhtérroc found himself mesmerized by Cora’s brilliant green eyes, and he realized he had agreed to help only moments after the words had escaped him. He knew it was a good and right thing to do, but it was putting him off track. There was no army in this. However, there was opportunity to learn the ways of the land. He quietly argued this strategy in his mind while Cora and Celindria began making plans.
Bertrand pushed a form toward him and asked for a signature.
“What ees dees?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
Bertrand replied, “Sign it so we can make everything legal.”
There was a moment’s silence as Cuauhtérroc stared at the paper, then he said, “I cannot write.”
Celindria snorted at him. “Well, looks like they shot you through the ‘stupid forest’ and you didn’t miss a tree.”
“Be nice,” Cora said, then placed a gentle hand on his dark shoulder and said softly, “That’s all right; just make your mark.”
Slowly but deliberately, Cuauhtérroc etched a few scribbles across the bottom line of the form. The pen felt quite odd in his hand, and the marks represented an extremely crude attempt to write “Pathway,” the only letters he was even vaguely familiar with. They were completely unrecognizable.
Bertrand studied his “signature” for a moment. “Right then. That’s that.” He quickly grabbed up the three dossiers and strode to the door. “If you three would follow me, please.”
They followed him to the front room dazzling in stark white. All three blinked several times as their eyes adjusted. Someone in the room whistled a catcall as Celindria entered. She smiled and dropped a quick curtsey on her way to the central desk.
“Janelle,” Bertrand said, addressing the secretary, “see to it that the O’Banion company is equipped properly for the Calloway commission.” He nodded at each of them, then ducked quickly back through the door to the inner hall.
“So…Bertie got you on the Calloway job. All right, give me just a moment…” Janelle completed and handed them a provisions request to tender at any local merchant, then shook each of their hands in turn. “A good roll of the Bones!” she said as they exited.
Moments later they were on the steps of the Mercenaries’ Guildhall, facing the Guildhall of Lawyers and Scribes across the street with the University of Magical Arts and the Free City Arena standing prominently in the distance.
Cora reached her arms out wide and breathed deeply of the warm afternoon air. “Ahhh…how good it is! Let’s go.” She practically skipped down the steps with joyful anticipation.
Celindria folded her arms, glared at Cuauhtérroc, then clomped down the steps.
But Cuauhtérroc didn’t move, and Cora had reached the street before she realized he wasn’t following her.
“What’s the matter, Cuauht?” she asked him when she had ascended the steps again, leaving Celindria at the street. “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“My name ees Térroc. Cuauh means dees,” he said, tapping his panther pelt. “Call me Térroc or Cuauhtérroc; do not call me Cuauht.”
“Okay. But why aren’t you coming with us?”
“I come to dees place to make dees army. I have only dees two weemen. Dees ees not a army.”
“Well, it’s a good thing we won’t need an army to find Calloway’s wagon, isn’t it? Come on, Cuauhtérroc. Sometimes you have to start small.”
The panther warrior remained firm, resolute but perplexed at the same time.
Cora smiled sideways at him. “Look, what say we talk about this over a mug of ale”
“No, Cora O’Banion. Do not dreenk dees! Eet ees poison.”
Cora pulled up short. “What gave you that idea?”
He recalled to her the men he had seen vomiting in the streets.
The songsage laughed, “Oh, well they just drank too much. But don’t worry about them; they’ll have a bad headache in the morning, nothing more. So, come on. We’ll get you something else if you don’t want any ale.”
Still, he hesitated. “In my lands, weemen do not lead dees men. Eet ees not right for me to follow you.”
Cora raised an eyebrow at him and defiantly placed her hands on her hips. “Well, these aren’t your lands. This is Arelatha. Besides, how do you know where to go?”
Cuauhtérroc thought for a moment, then he nodded. “I weel follow you.”
That evening, the three sat around a small table in the common room of a modest tavern decidedly less refined than the Little Red Flagon, quietly eating a dinner of steak, baked potato, and spring salad.
Celindria sipped a glass of table wine and made eyes at several of the male guests, very few of which returned her attentions. She wore a loose-fitting linen blouse that was designed to lace up the front, but she had left the laces conspicuously unlaced, exposing an abundance of healthy bosom and a very exquisite sapphire pendant nestled between her breasts. She had spent the earlier part of the evening working her copious hair into an intricate knot on the left side of her head, with plenty left over to spill in platinum waves across her shoulder. She had shaded her eyes with a soft blue and her cheeks with rouge, and she lightly dusted sparkles on her forehead and nose. She clearly intended to attract the men tonight, but, ironically, they were just as clearly avoiding her.
“You know,” Cora piped, when Celindria tossed her napkin aside in frustration, “if you weren’t trying so hard, someone might notice you.”
Celindria shot her a searing look and stabbed at her salad.
Cuauhtérroc, wearing a simple shirt Cora had procured for him, looked up from his steak at the two women. “Dees meat ees good.” Juices dripped down both arms as he held the slab of meat in his hands, staining the elbows of his new garment.
“By the Maker,” Celindria scoffed, “use a fork!”
“Tell me, Celindria,” Cora said after washing down a bit of potato with a swig of ale, “is that sapphire pendant a gift? From your parents, perhaps? It’s very nice. My father gave me this ring.” She showed off the emerald ring, being sure it sparkled in the candlelight.
Celindria looked down at her pendant with sadness. “I suppose it’s a gift, but not from my parents. My family was slain by a lupinfell…a dragon-blooded wolf.” Her eyes grew distant as she stared into the candle’s flame.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Cora said with much sympathy.
“Dees happen to my family, also,” Cuauhtérroc added. “Dees Amurraks burn my veelage and keel my family. Dees ees why I need dees army, to keel dees Amurraks.”
Celindria regarded him a moment. “Oh, really. Why don’t you slow down and give your brain a rest?”
“Celindria!” Cora remarked with a scowl, “He’s just trying to relate.”
Unaware of the insult, Cuauhtérroc continued, the passion evident in his voice. “Amurraks come from dees south lands to my lands to keel us and take our lands. Dey keel everyone, father, brothers, seester, and dey burn dees forest weeth all dees aneemals. Dey must die for what dey deed.” A darkness shadowed his eyes. “I will keel dem all.”
Celindria regarded him contempt. “My family was massacred by a dragon-blood. Slaughtered in their sleep! We weren’t at war, Jungle Boy; we were living peacefully by a wooded stream, keeping a garden, tending a small vineyard, raising goats.” She picked moodily at her potato. “Do you even know what dragon-blooded creatures are?”
The savage paused in mid-bite and shook his head. “No…but dees meat ees good!”
“Dragon-bloods are disgusting perversions of nature…born of an unholy union between dragonspawn and natural creatures. Most of them never survive their vile births, but those that do…they’re the worst. The stuff of nightmares…hideous, foul. Some go into hiding, but others roam about destroying everything they touch.”
She continued after turning up her wine glass and drinking its contents in one breath. “All dragon-bloods are twisted mockeries of nature, but some…some can change their form, like their dragon ancestors, and hide among men. A lupinfell is a twisted wolf, a wretched beast desiring nothing but the deaths of innocent people…even children—” Her voice caught, and she fell silent once again, staring at the empty wine glass in her hand. With a quick sniff, she stood up from the table and tossed her napkin across her plate. “You know what? I think I’ve had enough fun for one evening. I’ll be in my room.”
“Celeendria ees a sad girl,” Cuauhtérroc said, picking up the baked potato and biting off one end. He screwed up his nose and spat the bite onto his plate.
Cora stared at Celindria’s vacated seat. Yes, she is.
As they set out after breakfast the next morning, the reeve’s mood had lightened very little from her sudden dourness of the previous night. She muttered something about needing to scout ahead and spurred her mare into a trot.
“We need to stick together,” Cora called out, but she might as well have been talking to the wind.
Celindria rode further on: out of earshot and, to Cora’s dismay, out of eyesight as well.
Cora thought for a moment about increasing their gait to catch up with the reeve, but she knew Cuauhtérroc would fall right over if he rode any faster. “Cripe,” she grumbled as the reeve disappeared from view.
Some time later, they rode past a sign that indicated the distance to Lock Selin. “We’ll be there about sunset, I suppose,” Cora announced. “I wonder if our reeve was scouting the road or the men traveling on it.”
“What do dees words say to you, Cora O’Banion?” Cuauhtérroc asked, pointing to the road sign.
“I’m sorry, Cuauht, I keep forgetting you can’t read. It says, ‘Lock Selin – fifteen miles.’”
Cuauhtérroc stared blankly at the sign.
“You know,” Cora said as they rode by, “I could teach you to read, if you like.”
“I theenk if you teach me to ride dees aneemal first, dees will be better.”
Cora chuckled at him. “You’re doing fine, Cuauht. Well, maybe not fine, but you’re getting the hang of it…I think.”
Cuauhtérroc hardly found the humor in his precarious situation. Why do the mainland people choose such an awkward beast for riding? It is a wonder they get anywhere at all.
As they strolled along, they passed many travelers heading the other way into Cer Halcyon. Cuauhtérroc studied each group of travelers, listening intently to their conversation as they passed. Information was important, regardless of the topic, and gaining knowledge of the language, peoples, and customs critical to his task.
The disparate cultures and sheer variety of peoples that met him on the road filled Cuauhtérroc with wonder, and the regular display of military might along that road filled him with awe. Frequently, they met a small patrol of four to six men heading northward, and occasionally they were overtaken by the same, their horses high-stepping and whinnying. They were disciplined, marching in lock-step, turning their eyes neither to the right nor the left. They brandished gleaming weaponry and wore splendid armor and exquisite uniforms of the deepest red. More importantly, they commanded the road. All travelers pressed to either side of the road as they approached, and some of them saluted with a fist across the chest.
As they merged back onto the road, Cuauhtérroc pointed at the soldiers, “Cora O’Banion, dees ees a army.”
“Cer Halcyon’s finest!” Cora replied. “The Crimson Guard, Protectorate of the Freelands.”
“Free Lands? Where ees dees?”
Cora chuckled, “Look around you. You’re in the Freelands. The Domains of Cer Halcyon have always been free, and the Crimson Guard fights to keep it so. It’s been hard since the Wars, though. And that’s why they need freeblades handling issues out in the country.”
Cuauhtérroc fell silent as they traveled onward, turning over new concepts in his mind. “Free Lands,” he suddenly announced to the air. “Cora O’Banion, I like dees. I will remember dees when I go back to dees home.”
As they entered a market sandwiched between the road and the canal, they stopped at a small tavern for lunch and to water their horses. Cora noted with a mixture of concern and frustration that Celindria was nowhere to be found. She certainly didn’t want to hear that the girl had been abducted, but with the busyness of the road, she didn’t see that being a real possibility. However, if Celindria had invited herself into someone’s lap, well…she might have invited trouble. It couldn’t be that she was lost; reeves never got lost…not any she’d heard of, anyway. They were masters at finding what was lost, uncovering what was hidden, and discerning the path in even the harshest conditions.
She sighed loudly and tossed her napkin aside. What if Celindria has simply abandoned us? “What am I going to do?” she sighed. “I think I lost my reeve.”
Cuauhtérroc shrugged and took another bite of stew. “Dees ees good.”
“No, it’s not. Did you hear me? I lost my reeve, Cuauht.”
“My name is Cuauhtérroc. Call me Térroc or call me—”
“Sorry…” Cora sighed again and stared out the window at the many travelers on the highway. Cripe! Where in the Nine Hells is she?
As they approached Lock Selin that evening, Cora pointed ahead to the monument, a slender granite obelisk. “We start heading east from there. And if I don’t find that fool reeve, I’ll have to assume she abandoned us.” Cora glanced over at Cuauhtérroc. Can we find the wagon without a reeve…just me and a displaced Audric?
Lock Selin was a busy trading community with a variety of shops, taverns, and inns that dominated the hillsides flanking the canal. The town boasted a newly reengineered set of locks that held aloft a matched pair of drawbridge sections, an intricate lacework of iron crossbeams, painted a medium green, that allowed travelers to cross over the canal when the locks were closed.
Capping the hillside on the eastern edge of town was a stone keep of ancient build that served as the base of operations for the Crimson Guard. The road that ran through the heart of Lock Selin and paralleled the canal also ran right up to the western wall of the minor fortress, forming into a tight traffic circle that wound around the monument.
“Here we are, Cuauhtérroc,” Cora said as they entered the traffic circle. Even as daylight faded, it was bustling with cargo wagons, teamsters’ coaches, haberdashers’ carts, and many traveling merchants afoot from one part of the city to another. The songsage looked about for a pretentious blonde girl in tight leather breeches and a loose linen blouse, followed closely by a covey of drooling men.
“Cripe!” she vented. “Well, Cuauht…I don’t see her. Do you?”
“No, I do not.”
“All right then, she’s done. We’ll just have to go on without her.” And with that, Cora turned her mare to the east and headed towards The Grottoes to find a low-cost but cozy inn.
“Cora O’Banion, how weel we find dees wagon weeth no Celeendria? Maybe we find her first.”
Cora turned her mare around and gaped at the jungle warrior for a moment. “You are a noble savage, aren’t you? Doesn’t it bother you that she signed on for this job, but hasn’t really cared for anything but her perfumed hair? I mean, she hasn’t even—”
“Ahem….” Celindria was standing beside her horse, having walked up from behind.
Cuauhtérroc pointed to the reeve. “Dere she ees! I find her for you.”
“I haven’t even what…Cora?” Celindria stood with hands on hips, stamping her foot. “Haven’t even booked a couple of rooms for the night? Well, no…I’ve done that. Haven’t even gotten directions to Westmeade? Well, actually, I got all that, and then some…I got a map. So, what haven’t I done? Spit-shined your boots?”
Cora could only bite the inside of her lip. You didn’t let me know what you were doing, and got me all worked up for nothing, you little sprite. She breathed deeply to compose herself. “Good job, Celindria. I’m sorry about all that. I just thought you had left us. I didn’t know where you were, and I got worried. That’s all.”
Celindria snorted slightly. “Don’t worry about me, Cora. I can take care of myself. I had to get away for a bit—not from you—I needed to clear my head and take care of some things. Now…we’ve got rooms and a meal at The River Queen near the canal. I think you’ll like the accommodations, and they’ve got good stables in the back.”
“I theenk she know what she ees doing, Cora O’Banion,” Cuauhtérroc offered as Celindria walked off.
Cora’s eyes narrowed. “I think she does, too.”
The River Queen was an upscale two-story establishment, painted a cool blue with white trim and decorated to resemble a passenger boat that regularly toured the Dragontail Canal. Cora balked when she first saw it; it would cost them a fortune. They had a pool of barely fifty gold stallions. Cora had contributed all but ten of that, and it perturbed her that Celindria had spent so much on excess. It wasn’t her preference to live meagerly, but until they finished the job and were paid for it, they had to watch every copper mark.
“Celindria!” the songsage said with wide eyes. “We can’t afford this place!”
Celindria tossed her head. “You worry too much, Red. I’ve got it covered.” She looked back and winked at her. “Take your horses around back. I’ll meet you upstairs.” Then she ducked inside.
Cora reined in her horse, and Cuauhtérroc nearly fell off trying to do likewise. Red? She called me Red!
“What ees wrong, Cora O’Banion? Why are we stopping?”
“Oh, nothing.” Cora tried to put her petty irritations from her mind. The girl did need a talking to, but not in front of the savage. “I was just thinking. Come on, Cuauhtérroc. Let’s get these horses stabled.”
The stables were clean and tidy and smelled of fresh straw. A young stable hand in black livery took the reins from them and offered to wash down the horses for a small surcharge. Cora declined, her consternation growing. This is the kind of place my father would go. I know we can’t afford this. I hope she’s not planning to steal these services. I hope she didn’t already steal for it. She’s not a cutpurse, is she?
Inside, the tavern and inn boasted more of the same attention to detail and genteel service. The ambiance and décor were nothing like the Little Red Flagon in Cer Halcyon but several amenities were available, most for a small fee. Two young boys rushed up to Cora and Cuauhtérroc and offered to shine their shoes, wash their feet, take their luggage upstairs, or bring them dinner. Cora refused their every offer, but then paused before sending them away. “On second thought, boys, bring us up some menus and a mug of ale. What do you want, Cuauht?”
“I want dees water.”
“Bring that to the room of Cora O’Banion. Or, it might be under the name of Celindria Matherthorne.”
The boys bowed low and scampered off. Cora checked with the tavernkeep on their rooms, then she and Cuauhtérroc went upstairs. It seemed to have been completely arranged; one room for the girls and one for the savage.
The second floor was well lit, quiet, and clean. Knowing that many inns were quite the opposite, this was a welcome relief. Sleep would be good tonight. The door to the girls’ room was slightly ajar when she reached it, and Cora rapped softly on it before pushing it in. “Hello?”
Celindria was sitting cross-legged on the bed furthest from the door, looking in a hand mirror and applying gloss to her lips. She looked up briefly and motioned for them to enter. “Jungle Boy’s key is on the table there,” she said dismissively.
Cora frowned briefly and picked up the key. “Here Cuauhtérroc, this is your key. Your room is across the hall. Just knock if you need anything. Judging by the level of service in this place, though, you’ll probably have everything you need.”
As Cuauhtérroc left, Cora quietly closed the door behind him, steeling herself to confront Celindria. She had to be stern but kind, blunt but gentle. She had to express her concerns and her intent to lead, which meant Celindria had to follow and respect her authority. Cora breathed deeply and held it, closing her eyes and leaning her forehead on the door.
A knock at the door made Cora jump and bite her tongue. What the blazes! She opened the door slightly; Cuauhtérroc stood there with his key in his hand. “I do not know how to open dees door.”
From behind her, Celindria sniggered.
Cora sighed and took the key from Cuauhtérroc’s hand. “Come here, Cuauhtérroc…” She showed him how a key works, let him in, and gave him a quick tour of his room, partly to make sure he could find everything and partly to see whether Celindria had reserved for him a “charity room” with only a straw mattress and chamber pot. To her small surprise, Cuauhtérroc’s room was every bit as comfortable and spacious as theirs. It also had two beds in it, one of which would be wasted expense. Besides that, Cora was well satisfied with his room, and her concerns abated. She excused herself and went back across the hall.
Just as she entered their room, Celindria motioned at a wicker tray on the table, on which stood a pair of menus between a pewter mug of ale and a tall glass of water. “Looks like you’ve figured out room service,” the reeve said.
Cora just sighed. Now was the time for The Big Talk, one of many Cora knew she was going to have, and not only with Celindria. She had seen enough of her father’s negotiations and diplomatic relations to know that people had to be “handled,” as he put it. “So…,” Cora paused, and Celindria met her eyes.
Cora grabbed the menus and handed one to Celindria, then sat on the empty bed to face her. She glanced down at her menu, stalling as she tried to gather her thoughts. “Do you think I should try these ribs?”
Celindria smirked at her. “You obviously want to tell me something. So…out with it.”
Cora bit the inside of her lip…again. She drew a breath and began. “Okay…let’s get a few things straight, Celindria. First, we’re a team, a freeblade company, so we have to work together. We can’t each be doing our own thing. There’s all sorts of things out there that can kill us…maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon enough. And if I don’t have the confidence that you’re going to be there for us, then…well…I just need to know you’re going to be there.”
A puzzled look wrinkled Celindria’s brow. “What are you talking about?”
Cora continued, “For starters, you took off—‘scouting’ as you put it—without telling me where you were going. I didn’t know where you were all day.”
“I was scouting…”
“Something could have happened to you and I wouldn’t have been able to help or defend you. There might have been an ambush or something.”
Celindria pinched off a laugh. “On the Dragontail Highway? In broad daylight? With marching patrols every fifteen minutes? Did you hit your head on the way up here?”
“Well, we could have changed plans, and you wouldn’t have known.”
Celindria scowled at her. “You said plainly that we were going to Lock Selin. So, I went to Lock Selin. What’s the big deal?”
Cora was silent for a moment, realizing her father clearly was a master negotiator. Or at least an experienced one. And she was not.
“We just need to stick together, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Then how about just you and I stick together? What are we doing with that half-wit savage? I’ve seen smarter rocks at the bottom of the river.”
Cora just stared at her. “He’s not stupid; he just doesn’t know our language very well.”
“I’m not saying he’s stupid,” Celindria retorted. “I’m just saying the closest he’ll ever get to a brainstorm is a slight drizzle.”
“Well, I figured you’d be more understanding of him, since you share something in common.”
Celindria recoiled in disgust, “I have nothing in common with that long-haired, club-swinging, loincloth-wearing savage. And you know better.”
Cora ruffled with some annoyance of her own, for the prejudice in Celindria’s words was obvious. The conversation was becoming thornier than she had anticipated. “I meant you both watched your families killed.”
Celindria threw up her hands. “Cripe, it’s not the same at all! My family was slain in cold blood by a hideous perversion of nature. His family was killed in a war, and do you know why? Because he’s a savage, Cora. He burns, pillages, rapes, and destroys, not because he has a cause, but because it’s what he does, plain and simple. He’s always at war with something. This time, the war came to him and killed his family. He’s out of harmony with Nature, and Nature has a way of bringing all things back into balance. So, it’s not the same thing. We have nothing in common.”
Cora paused at this, turning things over in her head. Cuauhtérroc had been peaceful enough thus far, cordial even, but Audric savages did have a nasty reputation for random acts of violence. They were known for getting suddenly irate at trivial things or destroying life and property for minor infractions. “All right, your complaint is duly noted. But I’ll have you note that Cuauhtérroc hasn’t once committed any gratuitous violence.”
“I know,” Celindria muttered begrudgingly, “but I don’t know what you see in him.”
“Strength. Sincerity. Someone desperately trying to fit in.”
The reeve snorted. “He’ll probably off you first.”
Cora blinked twice, stunned by Celindria’s frankness. “I…that was…you have no basis for judging him like that. What’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t know how else to put it: he…is…a…savage.”
“He’s also genuine and kind…and maybe you’d see this if you spent some time around him. In fact, you might find he’s having a hard time with you too, since you literally have nothing kind to say to him.”
Celindria rolled her eyes and fell back on her pillow. “You can't possibly know anything about him, just like you don't know anything about me.”
Cora scrubbed her face with a hand. With a short sigh, she stood and fetched her ale. It had lost its head already, which she lamented. That meant it was not a Dokarien brew.
She sat on the bed again, slowly sipping the ale and staring at Celindria. What am I going to do with her? She doesn’t seem interested in being part of this company, associating with Cuauhtérroc, or accepting my leadership. We’ve only been together for one day…maybe I should relax and let us fall into our roles. She’s a reeve, so she scouts and tracks. Cuauhtérroc does the fighting, and I...I broker the peace between them. Cora squinted at the reeve, thinking hard. “Hey Celindria.”
“Look…” she paused and breathed deeply. “I just think we’re three very different people who have to work together. We also have to trust each other, which means I need to be able to trust that you won’t run off.”
Celindria rolled over to face her with a glower. “I didn’t run off. Despite what you may think, I was taking care of things. Important things, like these rooms. I thought you’d appreciate that I didn’t put Jungle Boy in the stables.”
Cora thought better of responding. She needed an ally more than she needed to win this battle. But was one thing still pestered her. “I really do appreciate you getting these rooms for us. But I was wondering…how’d you pay for it? I mean, I have all our funds in my pack. So…did you actually pay the bill?”
Celindria sat up and glared at Cora. The accusation implicit in her questioning was clear. “I certainly did not steal them, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“I’m not implying anything. I’m just curious.”
The reeve paused, regarding Cora for a moment. “Don’t worry about it. It’s taken care of.”
Cora raised one eye suspiciously. “You didn’t…” Surely not!
Celindria’s glare turned icy. Her blue eyes seemed to take on a white sheen that matched the frostiness in her voice. “Don’t ask.”
By dodging the nearly-asked question, Cora was certain the reeve was engaging in shady dealings at best, or at worst had sold herself. She was about to press the matter—she could not tolerate a thief, swindler, or a cherry, regardless of how the party benefited. But a rapid knocking on the door forced her to wait.
She bounded up and opened the door. Cuauhtérroc stood with the two young boys who had delivered the menus. “Are you ready to order, Madam?” the older boy said in a voice that hadn’t quite finished maturing.
Cora sighed and let the boys in. Another time, then, Celindria.
Sometime later, after Cuauhtérroc had gone to bed, Cora lay propped up on an elbow, puzzling over Celindria.The reeve was curled up under her blankets with a half-empty wine bottle in her clutches, muttering softly in a half-asleep stupor.She hadn’t even bothered to dress down for bed, and still wore her rouge and lip gloss, which had smeared across her pillow.Cora shook her head sadly.What’s your real story, Celindria?Why do you hide behind your bottle and makeup?