Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Iron Lily (Part 7)

The cat stopped and sat down in the middle of the road several yards away from where Halthor stood with the pony and dog at his side. The burnished gold of the cat's eyes gazed impassively at them. The dog beside Halthor barked but did not move from where it stood rigidly. The wild cat's tail flicked but aside from this, it gave no sign of concern at the dog's outrage. Its straw colored coat gleamed faintly in the light that filtered down through the thickening snow clouds above. As fat flakes began to swirl down from high, Halthor moved towards mounting the pony.

The cat made a noise that was a cross between a yowl and cough. The dog growled as the cat stood. Halthor frowned. He considered what to do. The axe was an almost comfortable weight in his right hand. As the cat began to pad forward, the dog moved to stand between it and Halthor. The cat yowled and raised its right forepaw. Halthor leaned down and picked up a chunk of ice off of the slate roadway. He threw it in the direction of the cat with a shout, "Get out of here!" The cat backed up and hissed at Halthor.

He leaned down and picked up another rough slab of ice. Again he shouted at the cat to leave. When the oblong bit of ice struck the cat's shoulder it snarled but moved farther away. He was in the midst of grabbing a broken stick off of the side of the roadway when the cat looked back, as though it heard something. The dog went quiet except for a low, threatening growl. The cat turned and began to run south down the roadway in the direction it had come from. Halthor put the axe back through the loop on his belt where he customarily kept a hammer. As he mounted the pony, Halthor wondered if they were going to meet the cat farther up the road.

He patted the grey pony on her neck. As she shook her head, Halthor said, "Go on, you." The pony moved forward at a walk. Halthor held the lead from the halter in his left hand. He did his best not to think about how sore he was going to be later or of how much his thighs ached from his first day of riding. As they passed beneath the trees, he mentally assessed the arboreal giants. He recognized ironwood with its rust red bark. He saw several beech trees that looked as though they were afflicted with some sort of sickness for they seemed stunted and gnarled. As they passed by the one closest to the road, he wondered if the wood would be useful or if it would be weakened by the mystery illness.

Upward and onward, Halthor followed the road south and up the hill. It was beginning to draw near to evening when he saw the trees thinned out. At the apex of the hill, Halthor saw a dense grove of pines. He frowned and remembered the bailiff of Wye's warning. As he drew closer to the trees of the ledge, as the bailiff has called the place, Halthor pulled the axe from its loop and set it across his lap with a fold of his cloak covering it. The dog trotting beside him began to growl as the wind shifted and blew from a more southerly direction. "Probably that damn cat again," he muttered.

"Ho, there!" a voice called from among the trees. Halthor's right hand gripped the axe haft tighter. A man stepped into the road. Halthor noted that the man before him didn't seem armed but he doubted that the man was alone. Thus, Halthor did his best to watch to either side of himself as the road delved into the grove. Out the corner of his eye, Halthor saw a pale faced man coming forward from the trees towards him. Halthor raised is right hand and revealed his axe. The man approaching him from the left abruptly stopped. The one that tried to come from the right found himself facing an angry, snarling dog. "Call off your dog," the man standing in the middle of the road demanded.

"Call off your men," Halthor answered. The watchman of the royal road into Lord Cuthbert's holding glowered at Halthor. The man on the left took a step towards Halthor. Halthor moved the axe from his right to his left hand and fixed his would be opponent with a dark look. "I'd prefer it if you went back into the wood, friend," Halthor said to him.

"Who do you serve?" the apparent leader of the group asked. Halthor didn't give him a look as he stared down the bearded man at his left. "Answer me," the man demanded angrily. Halthor pointed at the man at his left with the axe. "Clear off," the leader barked at his subordinates. They moved back as Halthor looked forward.

"I serve the King and no other," Halthor answered. The man before him squinted at him. "Let me pass," he demanded, "I am bound for Wynnwode and south." The watchman opened his mouth to say something more when Halthor cut him off. "I'm not sleeping in the cold for your sake. Let me pass or I'll ride you down," Halthor said, trying to sound bolder than he felt. The watchman bared his teeth in a scornful snarl.

"How am I supposed to know that you're not being sent to cause trouble by Lord Wintrin?" he spat at Halthor.

"A night in Wye is hardly an audience with a lord," Halthor snapped, "I'm a builder going south to do work. Now let me pass." The watchman's companions observed the exchange with some irritation. They were growing bored with watching the builder argue with their leader. The dog did not move from Halthor's side and Halthor did not let his attention stray from the man nearest to him. When the leader of the group started forward, Halthor looked over at him. "What do you want from me?" Halthor demanded, "Coin? Food?"

"You're coming with me," the watchman said, "Wynnwode is a way point to Lord Cuthbert's castle. You are going to remain there until I know what your business is going south in the dead of winter." Halthor gave an exasperated sigh. The man at his left darted forward, thinking to take hold of the pony's lead when Halthor was otherwise occupied. Halthor's axe flashed and the man staggered back, grasping his upper right arm where blood gushed out. Halthor looked at the other two.

"Are we done?" he demanded as the man gripping his wounded arm swore mightily. The watchman looked at his companion. Suddenly, he didn't feel quite so cock sure of himself. It didn't help that Halthor was the first person he encountered that actually resisted. "Get on wi' yeh," Halthor said to the pony. As the grey mare began to walk forward, the leader of the group stepped back, careful to keep himself outside of Halthor's reach. The trio watched Halthor ride down the Royal road into Wynnwode. As the man who swore shouted vulgar things after Halthor's retreating back, his leader cuffed him upside the back of his head.

Halthor ignored them, deciding that he wanted to get to the inn at Wynnwode before dusk came. When he reached the town, he realized that Wynnwode was much larger than Wye. He road down the Royal road where it parted the town in half. On the western side, Halthor saw the ramshackle building that served as the temple of the Bound God. He usually would have been indifferent to the state of the holy building except there appeared to be someone living within the ragged place. As he passed by, a priest dressed in black and red came out. The man glared at Halthor. For a moment their eyes locked and Halthor saw the priest's expression move from irritation at a new arrival to utter loathing for some reason that Halthor was not aware of. As Halthor continued on to the inn, the priest's lips moved with some muttered incantation.

Inwardly, Halthor prayed that the Light Father would keep the evil of his cursed brother away from him. Halthor rode up to the inn and a stableman came forward. He awkwardly dismounted. The man with straw in his brown hair looked him over from head to toe. Halthor anticipated a sharp comment. Instead the stableman said, "Two groats and yer beast has shelter and feed. Three and it will be a blanket too." Halthor rummaged around in his pack. After a moment of searching, he pulled out a purse with coins in it. He counted out three of the heavy silver coins before putting them in the stableman's hand. The stableman nodded and helped Halthor take his sacks off of the pony.

With three sacks thrown over his shoulder and two held in his left hand with his purse of money, Halthor walked into the inn. The innkeeper looked over. Her eyes narrowed slightly until she spotted the purse. Soon, she was talking to him about a room for the night and less than subtly hinting that she could warm his bed for him for a bit of extra coin. Halthor made noncommittal comments as he paid for his room and a hot meal. When he had finished his food and made his way up to his small room, Halthor found himself bone weary. He fixed the purse to his belt and laid down on the narrow bed. Wrapped in his cloak, Halthor was soon asleep.

The sound of the door opening woke him deep in the night. He opened his eyes to see the watchman of earlier creeping into his room. Halthor took the small axe from where he had hidden it beneath the mattress. When the other man was at his side, Halthor brought up his axe and pressed it to the man's throat. The watchman froze, alarmed that his quarry was indeed awake and armed. "Leave and you will yet live," Halthor said quietly. The watchman looked down at him, troubled by the fact that his night vision was substantially worse than Halthor's. The watchman stepped back a pace. Halthor watched him. When Halthor sat up and put his feet on the floor, the watchman fled.

It was difficult for Halthor to sleep for the remainder of that night.

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