Monday, May 9, 2016

The Iron Lily (Part 5)

Halthor didn't like the way the grey pony he rode jostled him with each step. He did not enjoy the bracing cold air that made his face hurt and his breath turn to ice in his beard. He especially did not like how the sun's light was nearly blinding off of the snow on the fields as he rode south. The dog's white coat made her hard to spot when her head was low. Though the ruddy tip of her tail whipped back and forth like some sort of flag when ever Halthor stopped and dismounted, for that was when the dog scampered and jumped. As much as he didn't want to admit it, Halthor was enjoying the comical company of his canine companion.

Wye was just a dirty smudge in the distance that he could see if he craned his neck just right when he was on the back of the pony. Now, however, he was walking southward, holding the pony's lead as the dog ran excitedly around him. The brilliant blue sky seemed unnaturally so to Halthor. The silence of the wood made him uncomfortable. What perhaps made him most uncomfortable was the fact that it wasn't an absolute silence. He could hear noises of animals and of snow falling off of the high branches of the trees. The wind made an eerie sigh through those branches, and blew about his cloak just enough to send a knife of cold through him where his coat had a gap in the front.

"Bugger it all," Halthor muttered, "Where am I going to find a dry place to sit and eat?" The pony's ear's flicked back as he spoke. She then stopped walking. Halthor pulled on the lead but the equine did not move. "Come on," he snapped, "We've got leagues to go before dark." The pony pulled hard on the lead and jerked the rope out of Halthor's hands. She then turned and began walking into the trees. "God rotting beast," Halthor snarled before stomping after it. As Halthor began to catch up to the pony, she tossed her head and walked faster on some sort of path that was buried in the snow. "Get back here!" he shouted. The dog barked loudly.

Soon, they reached a clearing with a low, ramshackle structure built on the leeward side of the boulder on the far side of the clearing where they entered. The pony walked to the side of the building and pawed at the snow. Halthor approached and wondered who cared for this place. As he drew closer to it, he realized it was far more sturdy than it had seemed when he first laid eyes on it. The rough hewen logs that at first looked so haphazardly thrown together revealed that they were joined together by the builder with some competence. Between the gaps of the logs, Halthor saw the ruddy clay that served as mortar and the bark applied over it. While the bark was peeling, enough of it remained that from a distance the building seemed entirely fashioned of wood. A door stood on the far side of the building, which Halthor discovered as he walked about it.

The handle was a length of weathered, braided cord passed through a hole in the door and looped over a peg to hold it closed. Snow was piled before the entrance, but the boulder managed to prevent much of a drift from forming. Halthor dug away some of the snow and pulled the door open. It was dark inside the building after the bright light of the day. when he stepped in and his eyes adjusted, Halthor found the shelter was clean and dry. A rough platform for sleeping lay near the clay fireplace. He leaned down and looked closely at the fireplace. He nodded slightly with appreciation of the anonymous builder's skill when he realized that they had diverted a measure of the chimney to pass under the sleeping platform, thus warming it from below. Looking at the sloping windward wall, the traveling builder could see random graffiti and markings left by those who had passed by before him through this traveler's rest.

Halthor walked out into the day. He found the grey pony waiting near the door. He patted her nose. "I suppose I was wrong about you," he said, scratching her behind her ears. The dog trotted into the traveler's rest. As it sniffed its way around the one room structure, the tail continued to wag happily, possibly a bit faster than it was when chasing the pony. Halthor took the packs off of the pony's back and carried them into the traveler's rest. As he set them down, he looked in the ones that the bailiff of Wye had given him. Finding two bags of grain that Toby had somehow managed to load on the pony with out Halthor's realization, the builder opened one and brought it out to the pony.

Awkwardly, Halthor gave the pony her feed. He walked back into the shelter and saw the dun and white colored dog sniffing at his bags. The auburn haired man knelt beside the underfed dog and sighed. He opened the pack he had brought from Starhaven and pulled out some of the leathery strips of jerky that were near the top of the stack of food within. He tossed two to the dog, which immediately turned into the red eared dog snapping it up and worrying at it. Halthor sat down on the sleeping platform and began to chew meditatively on his strip of jerky. He considered the distance he had come and found himself feeling troubled.

"I've never been this far before," he said out loud. The dog didn't look up from the strip of jerky it was gnawing on. "I hope that Aleric is all right," he continued, as though the dog had taken interest, "I'm sure that he's well. The weather hasn't been harsh. And I know that the king's men have been bringing him wood to work with. The scraps are more than enough for him to keep warm with. I don't know if bumble footed Ruah is actually going to be useful, though. He's a bad apprentice, drinking most of his wages. I'm sure Aleric will find away to keep him straight." Halthor sighed.

He set his strip of jerky on his knee and opened the wineskin that Aleric insisted he carry. Taking a drink of the surprisingly potent stuff, Halthor considered the bailiff's warning. Halthor had moved the hammer to resting in his sack with his other tools. The worn axe that Griff handed him now hung at his side. Halthor found himself curious if the small axe had chopped more than wood in its use by its previous owner. The wind grew sharply louder and the door swung slightly as a gust blew in. Halthor looked towards the door.

Outside, the sky had begun to dim as clouds piled up. Halthor fixed the stopper in the wineskin and walked out the door. He looked up at the sky and frowned. "That doesn't look good," he muttered. The dog trotted up to him and sniffed at the bit of jerky in his left hand. Halthor looked down at the hungry creature. "Eh, here," he said, "I've got wood to cut." He tossed the jerky towards the interior of the traveler's rest and the dog darted after it. Halthor stepped out into the clearing and the pony lifted her head from where he had the feed bag propped up in the snow. "You don't know where there's dry wood, do you?" he said as he patted her neck.

The pony turned and started to walk towards the treeline. Halthor shook his head in amazement. "Gods strike me," he said, "I think you do." He followed the grey animal until they reached a thicket. A mound stood a short distance into the trees. The pony walked up to it and pawed at the snow covering it. Halthor moved to the mound and dug in the snow. Soon, he reached what seemed a pile of leaves. As he pushed the leaves aside, he found a large piece of leather. With some effort, Halthor pried the stiff material up and was rewarded with a pile of firewood. "Who tends this rest?" he muttered as he picked up an armload of the material before letting the flap he lifted fall back.

Halthor made his way back to his shelter and soon had a small fire going in the hearth. He was pleasantly surprised to see that his canine companion did not go digging through the sack with his food in it for more dried meat. Instead, the dog had sat waiting at the doorway, chewing on the strip of jerky that he had given it. As Halthor built the fire, he heard the wind whistling around the chimney top that was built against the boulder. After a bit of work, Halthor had his fire and a pot of snow melting over it.

When the door of the shelter opened, Halthor looked over. His pot of snow was nearly fully melted and he was in the middle of pulling out some of the dried roots that Aleric had given him for soup stuff. A woman dressed in heavy furs and woolens that were dusted with snow stepped in to the shelter. Halthor started to stand. In her right hand, she held a bow that was unstrung and in her left, a brace of rabbits that had been skinned and cleaned for the pot. She motioned towards Aleric's old pot with the rabbits. Halthor moved to the side and she walked up and carefully deposited them.

She pushed back her hood and Halthor saw that her skin was as pale as one of the noblewomen he had seen at Starhaven. Her eyes were a tawny gold and her hair was almost the color of polished maple. As the mysterious woman walked to the door to secure it more firmly against the blowing wind, Halthor said, "Are you traveling north?" The woman turned to face him. She gestured north and then pantomimed walking three times. "You are going to Starhaven?" Halthor asked. The woman shook her head and held up five fingers. "Five days?" he asked. The woman nodded. "That will bring you to the edge of the high mountains. It is a hard road there. They say that fey things live there. Men come back changed when they go past them."

The woman gave a small laugh. Halthor looked at the pot and sighed. The woman reached into the pouch she wore on her belt. She pulled out a folded packet of parchment.  Thrusting it into Halthor's hands, she walked over to sit beside the door. The dog trotted up to her. She began to pet it and the dog made a happy noise before flopping on the dirt floor for belly rubs. Halthor opened the mysterious packet and found a small quantity of sharply scented powder within it. He touched the tip of his little finger to his tongue and then the finger to the powder. As he tasted it, he recognized the spicy bite of fireweed. The woman motioned towards the pot. Halthor added the spice and noted that the pot conveniently began to boil shortly afterwards.

Halthor sat down on the sleeping platform. His companion tapped her chest. Halthor looked at her in confusion. She did so again and he looked down at himself, wondering if something about his clothes was amiss. The woman moved towards him and began to draw in the loose earth. He soon found himself looking at the image of a stag's head with a line drawn through the tines of the antlers. Halthor's blood chilled as his mind went to the talisman he wore beneath his shirt. Unable to keep the look of surprise and concern from his face, Halthor looked at the woman before him numbly.

She made a dismissive gesture and rubbed out the image she had drawn. Haltingly, she said, "Fadur sends me." Realizing that he didn't understand her, the woman began to draw a series of images on the ground. From her pictures, Halthor realized that someone had sent her north looking for someone.

"Me?" he asked. The woman nodded. Halthor shifted in his seat. He attempted to stealthily reach for the small axe beside him. The woman noticed his motion and held her hands up in a gesture of surrender. She moved to sit beside the door again. Halthor looked at her warily. The woman opened the clasp of her cloak and spread it upon the ground. She sat down upon it. She drew forth from beneath the neckline of her own coat a pendant. It was a flat, round stone. Bowing her head, she took the pendant off and held it out to him. When Halthor made no motion towards her, she looked at the dog.

She said something in a language that sounded almost like his own but also birdlike. The dog sat up and looked intently at her. She set the cord of the necklace in the dog's mouth and it carried the affair over to Halthor. He took it from the dog and looked down at it. Engraved on the disk was a stylized bird with some kind of ribbon over its eyes, blindfolding it. Halthor looked over at the woman. She pantomimed putting the necklace on. Warily, Halthor did so. Suddenly, he felt the weight of the king's talisman vanish. Halthor gasped and pulled the pendant the woman had given him off. As the cord snapped at the back of his neck, the crystal talisman returned.

The woman again mimed putting on the necklace. Halthor did so and the curious sensation returned. "Blak sonnes waht en sur," the woman said. Halthor looked down at the pendant. Though the rabbit broth was fragrant and his stomach rumbled, Halthor discovered he had no appetite. The woman's words sounded strange, but Halthor knew what she meant. The black priests were waiting farther down the road. He looked up from the pendant.

"How many days?" Halthor asked. The woman held up one finger. He looked down at the small axe at his side. His stomach twisted. The thought of possibly having to fight for his life on the morrow made him feel sick. The woman motioned towards the steaming pot with a gesture of urgency. Halthor looked over and discovered that the rabbits were cooked. As he dipped his long handled spoon into the pot, the woman approached with a pair of cunningly wrought bowls. She offered one to Halthor. He spooned the broth into each, making sure that they both had a goodly portion of the cooked rabbits. Halthor took his horn spoon out from the pouch on his hip.

He pushed the meat around and tried not to think of Matias's ruined face. The woman reached out and touched his wrist. Halthor looked over. She put her spoon to her lips. Halthor nodded and began to eat. As he did so, he worried about what the next day was going to bring and what more his new companion was going to do.

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