Friday, May 13, 2016

The Iron Lily (Part 6)

Halthor tended the fire as his companion stretched out on her cloak. Out the corner of his eye, the builder watched her set her bowl down. The dog trotted up to the bowl and sniffed at it. As she ran a hand over the dog's back, the thin creature began to lap up the remnants of the thin soup that had served as their meal. She watched the dog with her tawny eyes, looking more concerned with the dog's state than Halthor.

She said something in the strange language that she had earlier. The dog paused in bolting down gobbets of meat. As it sniffed the air, the woman slowly began to sit up. The dog moved closer to her. Carefully, she picked up the dog and cradled it in her lap. Lightly, her hands ran over it as she began to sing. Halthor sat on the sleeping platform. A pang of guilt washed over him at keeping his companion from the warmth of it. He coughed slightly.

The woman continued her song and ignored him. Halthor heard the wind blowing hard outside. The woman paused in her caressing of the dog to reach up and take hold of the rope handle of the door behind her. She pulled it more firmly shut before turning back to the dog that was curled up in her lap. When she resumed her song, she looked from the dog to Halthor. "Nict ist longe," she said, "Sleap." Halthor looked at the sleeping platform and back to her. She shook her head and pointed at where she sat.

Halthor silently questioned if the woman would steal his goods or otherwise try to do him harm. He reached up to touch the hidden talisman beneath his tunic and felt the charm that the strange woman had given him. Decided that someone who had given him the means to hide the king's talisman and warned him of the black priests waiting down the road was not someone that would do him evil as he slept, Halthor laid down on the platform. With his cloak wrapped around him, Halthor soon found himself drifting off to sleep.

He dreamed of Starhaven. In his dreams, it was late at night. The builder's guild walked through the streets from the guild house with torches. Behind them, young men bore Aleric's body wrapped in a shroud on a board between them. They walked with a stately pace beneath the cold light of the high stars and fading moons. A man beat a drum as they walked as another played the shrill pipes that Aleric had always hated. The procession moved from the guild house to the northern wall of the city. They then laid the body upon a bier. Halthor ran through the procession but men passed him by as though he were a ghost. A flagon of oil was poured over the master builder's lifeless body as someone chanted the litany of Aleric's ancestors. Halthor watched helplessly as the masters of the guilds each laid their torch against the bier. As the flames crackled and popped, Halthor screamed.

He woke with a start with his cry of agony on his lips. The first thing that struck Halthor was that the traveler's rest was cold. He sat up and saw thin fingers of light reaching around the door. Halthor realized that it was at least a few hours after dawn and he had lost valuable travel time. He looked around his shelter and discovered that the mysterious woman had gone sometimes as he slept. Halthor looked to his belongings and found everything remained as it was when he fell asleep. He picked up his cloak and wrapped it around himself to ward off the chill. As he set his pack on his shoulder, he heard a noise outside the door.

Halthor walked over to it and opened it. He winced at the brightness of the daylight. The pony stood near the door, pawing at the earth. Halthor stared at the pony trying to determine what it seemed to queer. Then he realized that the saddle was upon her back and all but the bag that laid close to him was loaded and lashed in their proper place. Halthor counted the bags. All was accounted for and seemed to be in proper order. He looked around for the dog. When he didn't see the perked red ears bounding through the snow, Halthor decided that perhaps the woman had taken the dog with her.

He turned back to pick up his pack. The dog's happy yip startled him. Halthor looked to where the lowest point of the sloping roof was. There, he found his canine companion stretching and seemingly waking from its own rest. Halthor realized as he looked at the dog that the dog's coat was sleek and it no longer looked to be a painfully neglected animal. Halthor shook his head with confusion. He walked over and picked up his bag. "Come on, you," he said to the dog as it trotted up to him.

Halthor stepped out and secured his pack to the pony. With a little effort, he managed to mount the patient creature. Giving the beast its head, Halthor rode back to the royal road. The dog bounced merrily at his side. When he was again moving southward along the royal road, Halthor wondered what he was going to do about the black priests. The road sharply began to climb up a steep hill. The sure footed pony walked up the rise with surprising ease. Halthor looked back and realized he couldn't see Wye behind him anymore.

He turned his attention back to the path before him. A part of him insisted he should turn back for Starhaven. Troubled by the dream from the night before, Halthor felt the pains of homesickness even sharper than he had the day before. The path leveled out and Halthor wondered how much farther it was until he reached another traveler. After a time, he began to get uncomfortable with how the pony jostled him with her steps. Halthor dismounted and walked, holding the pony's halter. The cold seeped into his boots and began to make his feet ache. Halthor's stomach rumbled, reminding him that he had not eaten.

Halthor paused and looked up at the sky. Though low clouds were filling in from the west, he realized that it was drawing close to midday. Halthor took one of the sacks of grain and began to arrange it for his mount to feed. He was partly through the process of getting it settled when the dog barked. Halthor looked over at the piebald animal. The dog barked again in a tone of greater urgency as it stared southward. Halthor looked in the direction that the dog was. He squinted but couldn't see anything untoward ahead of them on the road. Halthor nudged the dog with the toe of his right boot. "Quit it," he said, "It's just the wind." The dog looked up at him and then back to the south.

Halthor shook his head. He dug into his pack and pulled out the remnant of the day before's loaf of bread and a lump of hard cheese. Halthor broke off a chunk of cheese and tossed it to the dog. As the dog began to worry at the cheese, Halthor ate his food and questioned how long it would be before the weather became unpleasant. Halthor finished his food and stepped off the road to tend to the necessities of nature when the dog began to bark again. He was in the midst of tying his belt about his waist when the dog's barking changed to growl of warning. Halthor rushed out of the trees.

He looked towards where the dog was staring. A large cat was padding towards them. Halthor swore softly to himself as he took hold of the hand axe that was given to him in Wye.

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