• Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 5: Unlikely Allies

Updated: Jan 12, 2021


In the morning, Cora awoke with a start from a banging on the door. She wrapped a robe around her—courtesy of the inn—stumbled to the door and opened it with a yawn. Cuauhtérroc stood there and annouced that he and Celindria were ready.

“I’ll be right down,” Cora said. She quickly dressed, pulled her hair back in a ponytail, and hurried downstairs to the tavern.

From the heady aromas of fried ham and eggs, grilled steaks, fresh breads, hot cane syrup, and kaffe—that strong, black brew of the ragamuffin lake people—wafting up the staircase, she could have found her way completely blind. Instantly her stomach growled, and she felt as if she hadn’t eaten in a week. Breakfast was a markedly more pleasant affair than the dour supper in their rooms. It was like sleep had erased previous tension, like they had just experienced a grand reset.

“You seem better this morning,” Cora said after Cuauhtérroc left to gather their horses and gear.

“Yeah,” Celindria answered, sighing. “I’m sorry about last night. I have issues, and I’m trying to work through them. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. The Greenbrier reeves said I wasn’t ready to leave their training; maybe they were right. But I’ll stick with you and do my best to support the team.”

Cora nodded. “Apology accepted. What about Cuauhtérroc?”

Celindria grimaced. “I don’t like him. I don’t trust him. But I already apologized to him, too.”

“Thank you. Now, let’s settle the tab and leave this behind us.”

After breakfast, the trio turned east onto the Halcyon-Cannaid Road. Before them stretched the rolling horizon of The Grottoes, hill country north of the Maz Abbor, into which they would ascend in a day or two depending on how hard they pushed. For now, as they left the bustle of Lock Selin behind them, the tranquility of pastures and farmland spread as far as they could see. The road thinned of travelers rather quickly, and long before noon they found themselves alone in their travels more often than not.

With nothing but birds overhead and grassy meadows all about, Cora reached around the saddlebags on her horse for her lute, and she began to sing a variety of ballads and courtly tunes that she had learned in school. It helped pass the time and provided a pleasant backdrop to their travels. It also gave her ample practice weaving spellsongs into her music. It was a fascinating study, and mastery of spellsong magic was what set true songsages apart from ordinary tavern minstrels. As she sang, Cora conjured magical light, figmentary sounds, and even cancelled all sound around them.

Towards the afternoon, Cuauhtérroc suddenly sat bolt upright in his saddle and promptly lost his balance. He whipped his head around to the right; something had moved amongst the undergrowth along the roadside, something much larger than a rabbit or squirrel, both of which he had seen a few times.

Several yards ahead, Cora and Celindria were talking in muted tones, but Cuauhtérroc heard nothing else. Perhaps it was nothing…maybe a tree limb falling. Whatever it was, it would have to wait; he was slipping off his saddle. With a grunt, he shifted his focus forward and grabbed the pommel with both hands.

His struggles caught Cora’s attention, and she looked back to see Cuauhtérroc struggling to keep his seat. She grinned as he began to slip off. “Looks like we’ll be reseating Cuauhtie in a few minutes,” she said to Celindria.

The reeve looked back over her shoulder. “Maybe not. Something’s up.”

Cuauhtérroc’s horse sensed his stiffness and whinnied, tossing its head up and down. The reins jerked from the savage’s hands as the horse lurched and threw him forward. At that fortuitous moment there rang out from nearby underbrush the unmistakable sound of a crossbow releasing its bolt as it zipped over the savage’s back. Cora’s eyes grew wide, and she shrieked involuntarily.

Celindria refocused on the road ahead, as a leather-clad man brandishing a shortsword sprang from the roadside. Her mare started, whinnied and reared, nearly toppling Celindria to the ground. Only several years of riding saved her from an ungainly spill.

The swordsman growled at Celindria and grabbed the reins of her horse to settle it. He deftly sidestepped the mare’s antsy hooves and pointed his sword up at Celindria. “Don’t try nothin’. It’d be a rinkin shame to sully ya, purty.”

Celindria’s eyes narrowed with grim determination. She was completely unprepared for a fight—her bow was unstrung and slung across her back, and her quiver hung on her horse’s side.

Two more men jumped from the undergrowth behind Cuauhtérroc, both armor-clad and bearing shortswords. They saw opportunity in a savage struggling to stay mounted, and rushed forward to strike. Their prize would be the two fine women if they could take out their bodyguard.

“Hand us your money,” one of them growled, “or feel the wrath of the Tyrants of Steel!”

Cuauhtérroc quickly scanned his untenable position. A swordsman was running at him, and another was flanking his right. As he suspected from the startled sound of Celindria’s horse, the reeve was also being attacked. Having no other option, the jungle warrior’s battle senses took control. He rolled off his mount, landed on his shoulder and continued the roll as he grabbed his macana.

Cora pulled hard on her horse’s reins and whipped the mare’s head about.

“Yeah, lassie,” echoed the lout staring Cora down, “we’re the Tyrants of Steel. Hand it over.”

The ruffian at Celindria’s side licked his lips. “Mebbe if ya don’t do anything stupid, purty, I won’t harm ya. I’d kindly like to save ya for later. Hey! Watch that hand of yers, missy. Don’t be reachin’ fer a sword or nothin’.”

Celindria had but one chance, and she took it. She kicked out with her left leg, catching the brigand in the jaw. With a thud, his head whipped back and he slashed out blindly with his sword, slicing her leg below the knee. Just a surface wound, but it hurt like the blazes. She bit off a scream and quickly grabbed an arrow from her quiver—her boot dagger was too far to reach. As the man recovered from her kick, he refocused his eyes on Celindria, and with all her might she skewered one of those eyes with the arrow. He screamed out in anguish as blood poured from his eye socket. Holding the protruding arrow, the man fell to the ground in agony, his body flailing about in intense pain.

Cuauhtérroc barely had time enough to spring to his feet as one of his attackers jabbed hard with a shortsword. Cuauhtérroc parried the attack and returned with a blow to the man’s ribs. He grunted and stepped back, but his hard leather armor absorbed much of the force.

The other outlaw leaped around Cuauhtérroc’s horse, joining the combat in a flanking position.

The savage grinned. This is just what a pair of panthers would do.

Another crossbow bolt zipped out from the roadside brush, but this one was aimed at Cora. It barely missed her leg, stabbing instead into her mount. The mare screamed in pain. The horse’s every muscle flinched at once, and it charged off in panic.

“What in the Nine Hells!” Cora yelled as she fought feverishly to regain control of the mare. “Whoa, horse! Whoa!!”

Celindria cursed as Cora’s mount raced down the road. She knew a frightened horse might run for miles. She also knew Cora would never control it yelling like that. “Kuri!” she yelled into her horse’s ear. She jabbed her heels into its haunches and snapped the reins, racing after Cora and leaving Cuauhtérroc alone in the ambush.

In the presence of trees and with the ache of a fresh wound in his leg, Cuauhtérroc recalled his days hunting, fighting, and warring in the jungles of his homeland. He held out his arms and, drawing on reserves of strength and endurance, bellowed in rage with a war cry that echoed down the entire hillside.

“What the—,” yelled the man facing him. He crouched low and cringed as the shout blasted past him. And when he stood again, Cuauhtérroc smashed in his skull.

The rage-fueled swing left him open, and the man behind attempted to take full advantage with a thrust of his shortsword. Cuauhtérroc barely dodged aside, then he grabbed the bandit’s extended arm. He twisted around, pulling and bending the man’s arm until the shoulder snapped out of joint. The brigand winced and stifled a groan. The jungle warrior quickly plunged his macana into the man’s belly, doubling him over, and followed with a deadly blow to the back of the man’s head.

In full gallop, Celindria finally caught up with Cora, who struggled to stay in the saddle, never mind control her horse. The reeve matched pace with Cora’s horse and leaned over to stroke its mane. With soothing words spoken in a language Cora had not heard before, Celindria calmed the frightened animal and slowed it to a stop. “Good girl,” she said softly while patting the mare’s neck.

“How’d you do that?” Cora asked between panting breaths.

“Um…I’m a reeve?” Celindria answered smugly. “I have a way with animals.”

“Well, thanks.”

“No problem. Now, as much as I’d love for us to keep going, I know we have to go back and help the Jungle Boy, right?”


Another crossbow bolt flew from the underbrush and lodged in Cuauhtérroc’s side. He bellowed again, in frustration and pain. Hidden enemies with ranged weapons: a jungle warrior’s worst nightmare. “Maltok!” he yelled at the undergrowth. “Come out and fight me!”

A hurried scuffle in the brush allowed Cuauhtérroc to pinpoint the bowman’s position, and he dashed to his right in the sound’s direction, leaping over the scrub along the roadside. In his rage, though, he leapt completely over his assailant and barely glimpsed the man knelt down behind the bushes. By the time the savage turned around, the bowman had loaded another bolt and lifted the crossbow at Cuauhtérroc’s head. Fueled by battle-rage, Cuauhtérroc could think of nothing other than this man’s death, and he began to charge, staring down the length of the crossbow the whole way.

From deeper within the forest a different crossbow rang out. The bolt whizzed past Cuauhtérroc’s shoulder and stuck into the brigand’s chest. He fell back, dropping his weapon.

Certain he was being attacked from behind, Cuauhtérroc skidded to a stop and looked behind him for the source. Running towards him through the forest was a pale white man, slim and muscular. He had pure white hair, long and straight, pulled into a single ponytail behind him. And, following closely on this white man’s heels was a large whitish-gray, four-footed animal that Cuauhtérroc thought might be an oversized dog.

The savage braced for the attack, anticipating a quick sword thrust that he would parry, then crack the white man’s skull with a—

The pale man rushed completely past Cuauhtérroc, hardly giving him a moment’s glance. As he sped by, the jungle warrior noted with surprise that he smelled like the earth right after a fresh rain.

For a moment, he was confused by this turn of events, and in that moment, he lost the heat of his fury. Uncertain what to do next, the savage watched as this new warrior knelt beside the wounded bandit and cradled his head in a pale hand.

With whispered words, the pale man unstrapped a knife from his belt and calmly slit the bandit’s throat, quickly dropping his head before the blood could stain those strangely white hands. Then he leaped over the underbrush with his overgrown dog following closely.

Cuauhtérroc gripped his macana tighter and moved slowly toward the road, preparing to face this pale creature. He seemed coldly cruel and heartless. He had just killed a defenseless man, so he would have no problem taking advantage of someone winded and wounded. Amurraks had done no worse. Cuauhtérroc crouched low in a ready defense as he crept along.

Seconds later, the white man broke through the brush, a satisfied grin on his thin lips, and Cuauhtérroc tensed. He wiped his knife on the dead man’s trousers, and sniffed rather smugly. He pointed at Cuauhtérroc with his knife. “You there! Did this man attack you?”

Cuauhtérroc regarded the white man with the dead bandit lying at his feet.

The pale man frowned. “I said, ‘did he attack you?’ Adakah lelaki ini menyerang awak?

Cuauhtérroc paused, not expecting to hear the Audrian language from a mainlander. He breathed deeply and responded in the Common language. “Yes. Dees man shoot dees arrow in me.” He raised his left arm and pointed with his macana at the bolt poking out from between his ribs.

“C’mere. Lemme take a look at it.”

Cuauhtérroc hesitated. In the distance he could hear horses approaching fast from further up the road. Hopefully, that was Celindria and Cora returning and not more attackers.

The white man resheathed his knife and showed empty hands. “Look, I ain’t gonna hurt you. I’ve been followin’ these so-called Tyrants of Steel for days, and since you killed a couple of them on the road, you made my work easy. So, I’ll repay you by healin’ those wounds of yours. All right?”

“What ees your name?” Cuauhtérroc asked as he approached warily, his left arm raised to expose the bolt and his right arm ready to attack if needed.

“Ordin Clay, and yeah, this is the real color of my skin, and no, I don’t have leprosy.”

“What ees lep—leparossy?”

“Never mind. Here, lemme see that bolt.”

Still, Cuauhtérroc paused, unsure whether to let this cold killer anywhere near him. Something instinctive told him to be wary of Ordin Clay. Even more unsettling was the man’s friend, presumably a dog, but with an intelligent gleam to its yellow eyes, as if it knew what a man was thinking. The whitish-gray fur of its snout was already stained with blood, and it looked hungry for another kill. The jungle warrior took a cautious step back.

“I said I ain’t gonna hurt you, man. But if you don’t want my healin’, that’s fine too.”

“What ees dees aneemal?” Cuauhtérroc asked, never moving his gaze from the creature.

“This,” Ordin said, scratching the animal’s head, “is Shinnick, my wolf. He hunts, tracks, kills, and keeps me warm at night. Don’t be afraid of him; he’ll kill you only if I tell him to.” Ordin grinned, but the gesture was hardly reassuring. “Fine…Shinnick, supren.”

The wolf promptly lied down next to Ordin’s feet, the bloodthirst gone from its eyes.

“Dees ees a wolf?” Cuauhtérroc asked. From Celindria’s descriptions of the lupinfell that attacked her family, he had not pictured such a splendid creature as this.

“So,” Ordin said, holding out his arms, “Do you want my help or not?”

Cuauhtérroc wanted to trust him. Ordin was clearly a dangerous and hardened man, with an abrupt demeanor punctuated by hasty movements. He was colored by no palette the savage had ever seen, and he carried the scent of a thunderstorm. But he had given aid in the fight and was now offering to heal. Cautiously, the savage inched forward.

The horses approached; it was indeed Celindria and Cora returning. In frantic tones, Cora yelled out Cuauhtérroc’s name as Celindria dismounted and quickly surveyed the ground around the fallen attackers.

Ordin looked up at the jungle warrior towering over him. “Are you the one she’s yellin’ for?”

Cuauhtérroc nodded, and finally settled on letting him see the bolt.

“That’s really stupid, yellin’ like that.” Ordin traced a finger around the bleeding wound in Cuauhtérroc’s side, then he breathed a short phrase.

Cuauhtérroc nodded again and winced as Ordin pulled on the bolt.

“This is gonna hurt a bit,” Ordin said.

At that moment, Celindria jumped through the bushes with her bow ready and an arrow nocked. The move startled Ordin, and he jerked the crossbow bolt from Cuauhtérroc’s side much more energetically than he had intended. The savage groaned loudly and clutched his side as blood trickled between his fingers. Shinnick leaped to his feet and snarled fiercely at this newcomer.

“Drop it or die!” Celindria barked. Her bowstring was drawn taut and a fierce gleam shone in her blue eyes.

Ordin looked whimsically at the bloody crossbow bolt in his hand and calmly dropped it to the ground. “Look. I was just removin’ it—”

“Shut up!” the reeve yelled, keeping her bow perfectly aimed at his heart.

Shinnick inched closer to the reeve, growling gutturally and preparing to spring at her throat with but a word from his master.

“You shut up, too,” Celindria growled back at the wolf with somewhat less ferocity now that Ordin had dropped a crossbow bolt and not a dagger. She eased the tension on her bow as Cora stepped through the brush and grumbled about the briars that were scratching at her clothes.

“Looks like we caught one,” Celindria said over her shoulder.

“He ees going to heal me, Celeendria,” Cuauhtérroc implored.

The reeve raised one eyebrow at Ordin. “What the blazes are you? Have you got leprosy? I don’t want you touching him if you have leprosy.”

“Leprosy?” Cora gasped as she stood beside Celindria. “That’s disgusting. Get away from him!”

Ordin heaved a big sigh and folded his arms across his chest. “This is stupid,” he muttered under his breath. “Supren,” he said again in soothing tones to his wolf. The wolf lied down once more, and for a moment there was a long, silent pause.

Cora brushed a fly away and stepped forward. “So, who are you…and what’s wrong with your skin?”

“My name is Ordin Clay and this is my wolf, Shinnick. I’m half-Vashanti and an aspiring mystic for the Cerion Forest. I—”

“Clay isn’t a very Vashantian name,” Cora noted skeptically.

“Did you miss the part where I said I was half-Vashanti? My father was an Arvorian carpenter named Horace Clay; my mother is from Vashan. My full name is Ordin Austmil-Clay, but I usually drop the ‘Austmil’ part. It’s quicker that way. Like I told your friend here, I was followin’ The Tyrants of Steel for four days when they ran into you. You seem to have taken care of them for me.”

“The who?”

“The Tyrants of Steel. They’re really just a bunch of losers tryin’ to make some silver without doin’ any actual work. One of ‘em has my fryin’ pan.”

“What’s with the skin?” Celindria intoned, “I mean, I’ve seen people like you before, but I usually had to pay admission.”

Ordin sighed with irritation. “Look, it’s a long story, but here’s the short form. I was struck by lightnin’ many years ago. It removed all the pigment from my body. So…there.”

“I theenk you smell like dees rain.” Cuauhtérroc said.

Celindria blinked and stopped sniffing the breeze. “Oh…the petrichor is you? I thought a storm was approaching.”

Ordin smirked smugly. “Look…can I heal this guy before he bleeds to death, or is that what you’re tryin’ to do here?”

Cora quickly granted permission; the power to heal fascinated her. Ordin claimed he was a mystic from the Cerion Forest, which would make him an adherent of The Grove, a sect that worshipped the Maker through nature. Her father had always said the Grovites were misguided tree-lovers who had fallen far from the ways of the Maker. But her mother suggested they knew every medicinal herb there was, and we could all learn a thing or two from them. Now she had a chance to see for herself.

Ordin knelt down beside Cuauhtérroc. He closed his eyes, placed his hands near the savage’s wounds, and whispered what sounded to Cora very much like a prayer. There were no poultices, no ointments, and no herbal rubs. Not even a trace of incense.

Cora felt her jaw slacken. He’s actually, literally, really healing him! Both Mother and Father have it wrong…he is neither misguided nor an herbalist.

With a flash of inspiration, she rushed back to her horse and grabbed her escritoire. She wanted to record all the details of this first encounter, her thoughts and feelings on the battle and the healing afterwards. As a songsage, her goal was to experience firsthand the exploits of freeblades and to immortalize them in story and song. Their first scuffle was largely a success, considering she emerged unscathed and Celindria had only a small cut on her shin. Her horse was wounded, but not badly. Cuauhtérroc seemed to have taken the brunt of the damage, but Cora presumed that’s what warriors are supposed to do. They had easily dispensed with all four robbers. Not bad for our first encounter.

When he finished healing the savage, Ordin glared at her with crossed arms. “What are you doin’?”

“Sorry…” Cora said, “I just want to capture everything. For posterity.”

“That’s stupid,” Ordin muttered as began to wash his hands.

Celindria studied the skies. “I hate to break up this party, but we need to get going if we’re going to make it to the next town by dinner.”

Cora looked askance at Celindria. Are you not impressed? “Hang on a moment,” she said to the reeve.

Then she turned back to Ordin. She hesitated, weighing a decision in her mind. “Ordin?”

The mystic looked up from rifling through the dead bandit’s pockets. “Yeah?”

“Thank you for coming to our aid.”

Ordin paused momentarily, his eyes narrowed slightly. “Sure.”

Cora smiled warmly. “So, I thought you might like to know who you have helped. I’m Cora O’Banion, a songsage from Lorenvale, southeast of Cer Vedrys. That is Cuauhtérroc, a savage from the Audric Jungle, and this is Celindria Matherthorne, a reeve from the Greenbrier Forest.”

Ordin eyed the blonde with interest, “A reeve, huh…from Vashan?”

“Not really,” Celindria muttered, tossing her hair to the left just so.

The woods fell into an awkward silence while Ordin ogled the reeve.

“So…” Cora said, clearing her throat, “what are you planning to do now…now that your chase has come to an end?”

Ordin forceably pulled his eyes away from Celindria and shrugged. “I ain’t got any real plans. I kinda come and go as I please, being tossed from The Grove as I was. I mostly stay away from people. They’re stupid.”

Cora pondered the response. He was kicked out of The Grove? What had he done? Cora had heard that Grovites were an especially exclusive group, complete with a secretive language. To be exiled from that must be serious. It might mean Ordin was a wanted man.

“Do you mind telling me why you were tossed from The Grove?” she asked.

The mystic regarded Cora for a time, deciding whether to divulge or simply walk away. His instincts were to say nothing, but something about Cora instilled in him a level of trust he had not felt for several years. Was it the pure innocence that practically radiated from her? Unsullied naivety, perhaps? He warred in his mind while the young songsage patiently waited.

“Fine,” he said at last, “I’ll make it short and sweet. I was struck by lightnin’ as a kid while climbin’ in a tree. It bleached my skin and hair white, blew off my left pinky toe, and propelled me a hundred feet out of the tree. The fact that neither the lightnin’ nor the fall killed me led the Elders to believe I was ‘chosen’ for some ‘special purpose.’ So, they gave me rigorous trainin’ and put me under the watchcare of The Grove. Years later when a band of dragon-bloods from the Maz Nabor invaded the Cerion, I was added to the fightin’ numbers. Bad move. No one knew this would happen, but when the spellslinger chieftain tossed a lightnin’ bolt our way, it completely diverted off his intended path and slammed directly into me, which was weird enough, but weirder still was that I wasn’t dead.”

“Amazing!” Cora interjected.

Ordin stared at her for a moment, then drew a quick breath. “Not really. I was a little dazed from absorbin’ all that energy, so I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with its sudden release from my body, which killed half a dozen of my kin. I quickly became known as ‘The Lightnin’ Rod,’ and a few days later, The Grove sent me packin’. ‘You have a special purpose, Ordin,’ they said, ‘Go find it.’ Which is just stupid. It’s not even physically possible. If I have a purpose, then I ain’t gotta find the bloody thing.” Glowering slightly, Ordin folded his arms across his chest. “Is that good enough?”

Cora didn’t know what to think for a moment. Is it good enough? Is he trying to impress or dissuade? What an exciting tale, yet he downplays it as nothing. Perhaps he could use our help.

“We really appreciate you healing Cuauhtérroc,” Cora finally said.

“He helped me dispatch the Tyrants…seemed a fair trade.”

“Would you…possibly…be interested in joining us?”

Ordin raised a white eyebrow. “Why would I do that?”

“Well,” Cora replied, “we’re working a commission for a merchant named Artus Calloway of Westmeade in the Duchy of Alikon. He lost a wagon of trade goods along this road, somewhere in The Grottoes most likely. Capturing the robbers is secondary, but if we did there’s extra reward for that. Should be a great adventure, and any assistance you can provide will certainly speed our mission.”

Ordin eyed the trio with suspicion, almost mirth. “You’re freeblades?”

“Yes,” Cora answered proudly. “We have a signed commission from Pathway.”

“Thieves you say?” Ordin asked pensively, rubbing Shinnick’s ears.

“Yes, they stole a wagon of goods from Artus Calloway.”

Ordin sniffed. “Meh…I don’t know.”

“There’s a reward,” Cora reminded.

Ordin shrugged.

“We could help you find your purpose. Would that be a ‘fair trade’?”

Ordin continued to scratch Shinnick’s ears; by the wolf’s reaction, he had found a good spot. “What kind of reward?”

I’ll be there,” Celindria piped up with another toss of her hair.

The mystic started to say something, but glanced over at Cora. He looked back at Celindria as a small grin pulled at the corner of his mouth. “Sure. Why not?”

Cora rolled her eyes. Oh, for the love of Beauty…

“Ordeen Clay, do you have more of dees heeling?” Cuauhtérroc asked. “Eet was very good, like dees kees of a baby.”

Cora smiled at him; it seemed a fitting if loose comparison.

Celindria only sniggered and gathered her gear. He’s got a soft heart and a head to match.


“…like the kiss of a baby…period.” Cora finished jotting down the events of the morning in her escritoire while the others gathered together the slain enemies and stripped them of valuables. She sensed the beginnings of a song coming on; Like the Kiss of a Baby was already a working title. “There,” she said while she closed the writing desk. “Now, what do we do with the bodies?”

“Do?” Ordin asked incredulously. “What do you mean? We leave ‘em and move on.”

Cora’s jaw dropped. It strained her sensibilities enough to see four dead people, but leaving them out in the open was unconscionable.

“Look,” Ordin explained, “does the mother bear take time to bury the cougar that she killed while defendin’ her cubs? Then neither do we bother with buryin’ the Tyrants of Steel. Death is part of life.”

Cora still stared aghast at him.

“I suppose he’s right, Cora,” Celindria chimed in. “It’s not like we know where they’re from or who their mothers are. We can’t exactly send condolence letters. The best we can hope for here is an unmarked grave…so what’s the point? Nobody wins; not even the vultures.”

“The vul—I can’t believe you two!” Cora huffed, “How can you not bury dead people?! That’s just so…wrong!”

“By your way of thinkin’, maybe so.” Ordin glanced around him. “When a tree dies, no one cares. When a bird falls to the ground, no one gives it a funeral. Nature ain’t pretty, honey, but that’s the way of things. If they had been respectable men, they mighta deserved a ‘proper’ burial accordin’ to their own customs. But they weren’t, so they don’t. That’s just the way it is.”

Cora huffed aloud, exasperated. Maybe it was a mistake to invite Ordin along. It was simply unacceptable to leave a dead man lying. “Let’s at least lay them neatly alongside the road, with a note or something, so when the next patrol comes by, they’ll take care of the bodies.”

The group of four dragged all the bodies to the roadside and lined them up—Cora insisted upon this to convey intent. As they rode off, Cora gazed forlornly behind her until the slain men were no longer in sight.

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