Chapter 11: The Kites of Gaurring


Dandifrod sat over the sleeping form of Toar and rolled several coins in his hand. In the dead of night, the gentle sound of clinking metal woke the Trohl. The stars were out, and the Children of the Mother Moon marched in a neat line from one horizon to the other. Toar sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. With a smile, Dandifrod gave the coins to his guide: three silver diems.


"For your efforts," Dandifrod stated. "As long as you guide us, this will be your fee from me everyday."


Toar thought it was a princely sum. "I am happy to take your coin," he smiled and put the diems in his pocket. "Among the Bouge, it is dangerous to trade metal. We will have to be careful when we get to populated lands."


Dandifrod was surprised. "What else would you trade?" He asked.


"Dragon bone – though I think most of it is from cattle," Toar frowned. "To Hearthstone," he said, suddenly giddy at the prospect of visiting Jindleyak lands. He'd never travelled so far east.


Dandifrod smiled, "To Hearthstone. Now, I shall get some sleep. But first, will you check my wound?"


Toar nodded as he pulled aside his blankets. Dandifrod lifted his shirt. With a delicate hand, he peeled away the bandage. Thin lines of black rot bulged under the skin and formed a slight web of rot.


"It will be very delicate as the rot spreads. Do your best not to aggravate it," Toar said as he dabbed more of Hazle's ointment over the wound.


"That shall be easy," Dandifrod replied. "It hurts something fierce to lay on it."


"Tomorrow, it might be better if you let the three of us split the watch," Toar began. "You can use the extra sleep."


"I think Carringten might agree with you. Let me have the first hour as the sun sets, and I will let you split the remainder," Dandifrod stated.


"It may be best that you take the extra sleep," Toar admonished.


"We shall see," Dandifrod stated. "For now, I take my leave," He said and stepped into his tent.


"Good night, Dandifrod," Toar whispered as he watched the old man disappear. Toar turned to the embers of the fire and sat with his back to the camp. Oblaran, the Red Moon showed on the edge of the horizon – nothing but a narrow slit. His red menacing form drifted behind the arc of the Children. Toar wondered what could have caused the two giants to go to war. Were the infinities so like humans, so full of lust, fear, and hatred, that they should attack and destroy each other?


Some men believed the infinities were nothing more than dirt and stone, but Toar found that to be naive. Whatever else they might be, they were certainly slow to act – and the war was over long before Toar was born. Nothing like it had happened since. He sat and stared at the Children of the Mother Moon. Several times he saw the streaks of shooting stars. One streaked the length of the sky. Toar heard the distant sizzle and crack as the rock burned in the air. The stone broke apart high overhead in a streak of fiery light. For a split second, five or six stones burned parallel lines across the night sky and Toar stared on in wonder.


Time passed as Toar listened to the faint sounds of the night: crickets, frogs, leaves in the breeze. As the sun rose, Toar spotted a fox among the trees. He was not good at sitting still, so he rekindled the fire and wandered a bit to see what he might find. There were plenty of wild vegetables about and Toar was ecstatic to find a patch of strawberries near a stream. Better than that, there were trout spawning. It was easy to lift several of them from the water. Caught in the air, the fish fought – but it was too late by then. Several squirted eggs and seed and struggled to get free, but Toar held them with a patient hand. He hoped their seed might still result in young. There was always want for more fish.

By the time the others woke, half a dozen cleaned fish and a large array of vegetables cooked over a fire. There was a small bowl of strawberries, and the canteens were full of clean water. Carringten looked to Dandifrod with a surprised smile on his face. Dandifrod gave a bit of a nod. Both felt this resourceful young Trohl made a fine addition to their troop. Even Baet was in good spirits as the drips had cleared during the night.


After breakfast, the party broke camp and continued east. The day was uneventful until Dandifrod heard an approaching caravan. The group pulled off the road and hid the horses far out of the way. Baet stayed with the animals while the others took a closer look. A caravan of Saots snaked west: cavalry passed first, followed by wagons, foot soldiers, and commoners. The bulk of the caravan was still to come: a long train of Trohl slaves. Carringten frowned to see it. "What house is that?" He whispered as he studied the distant crests on the Saot uniforms.


Dandifrod shook his head and shrugged. "Some minor of the north, a landed knight, or perhaps a baronet..." he surmised. He was surprised he did not know the crest and thought it must belong to some new minor house.


"That seems an awful lot of men for a landed knight," Carringten suggested.


Dandifrod pointed down the length of the caravan. "It is an awful lot of men for a baron."


"And you do not recognize any seal?"


Dandifrod shook his head.


"They are not a baron's men, or even the King's," Toar concluded. "They are not Saot men at all."


"And how do you know that?" Carringten asked.


"Look at the men and not the uniforms," Toar pointed.


Carringten leaned back and gave a nod. He turned to Toar with approval. "Good catch."


"What is it?" Dandifrod asked.


"They are Ministrians," Carringten huffed.


Dandifrod squinted and eventually nodded in agreement. "I do believe so... Good eye."


Toar shrugged. "This fake war is years old. I knew of this deception as it was first implemented," he said with a pained smile.


"Why the subterfuge?" Dandifrod asked.


Toar shrugged. "To confuse the commoners. The Bouge are not the Salystians. There were thousands and thousands of Salystians, but there are millions of Bouge. If the militias of Ebertin knew it was Minist that marauds through the western valleys, Kezodel and his allies would have a quick and precipitous fall from grace. As it is, the Degorouth and their Minist allies pretend a Saot army invades."


"That is a lot of work simply to conquer uninhabited lands," Carringten said.


Toar shook his head. "Only now are they uninhabited. The western lands were once prosperous and dotted with towns, villages, and farms. Now there is war. Ministrian shock troops dressed as Saots have gathered the rural people and sold them down the river Quick. Kezodel uses the invasion as an excuse to raise taxes in Ebertin. Those that cannot pay are thrown in jail. The jails overflow and Kezodel sells prisoners to his Minist allies in order to fund this increasingly dangerous war," Toar explained. "In the end, only the people suffer as Kezodel and his collaborators prosper."

"Clever," Dandifrod said. "How long will it take them to pass?"


Toar shrugged, "Depends on how many slaves they take west. I have sat in one place and watched over an hour as a caravan passed, and I still did not see the end of it."


The caravan continued for some time, though perhaps not an hour. Carringten estimated the number of men, women, and children was several thousand.


"There are few men of fighting age among the slaves," Dandifrod noted. "Why is that?" He asked his Trohl scout.


"I do not have all the answers," Toar shrugged.


Finally, the caravan passed. The party returned to the road and continued east.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Though there was no other excitement about the day, Toar was bothered. Something was off. Despite his uneasiness, he couldn't put a finger on it until the party made camp. As the sun dropped behind the mountains, Toar realized what was wrong. There were so many birds about – there were too many birds. Admittedly, they were in a forest, but the birds were everywhere and quite diverse. Now that he realized it, Toar wondered how it took him so long to discover it.


Toar watched the birds, curious that they should be around in such number. He did not know what it meant. It took him almost an hour before he realized that it wasn't the party they followed. They attended Dandifrod. From time to time, Dandifrod turned to the birds and smiled. Not only were the birds attending the old man, but Dandifrod knew it! This was a strange thing indeed!


For several days, the party continued their march east. Again, they were forced off the road, but this time it was not a caravan. A dozen men rode east with all possible haste. Carringten and Baet thought it was luck that they heard the riders and managed to get off the road in time. Toar suspected the birds warned Dandifrod.


The birds continued to follow the old man: wrens, swallows, magpies, crows, hawks, robins, pigeons, finches, falcons, owls... Toar never heard of such a thing! He knew many sorcerers and warlocks that belonged to Kezodel's court. He knew the strange magics they could produce. Some of them had power over select animals – but he had never seen anyone attended by such a crowd, and none that handled it so surreptitiously.


The old man wasn't the only one keeping secrets. On the third night, Baet woke Toar for his turn at the watch. Baet did not go to bed. For some time, he fidgeted on the edge of the fire's dim light as Toar stared into the night. Of late, Toar didn't mind the man-at-arms. Baet was not so irritated and suspicious as he was that first day. It helped that he was healed of the drips. Despite his speedy recovery, Baet seemed withdrawn and preoccupied. "What bothers you?" Toar finally asked.


"I beg a favor," Baet began in a low voice. "I ask that you keep it secret from the others."


Toar shrugged and gave a nod. He had no problem breaking a promise if the request was dishonorable. For now, he'd give Baet the benefit of the doubt. Then, if it should be against the old man, or the dark foreigner, he would do as his heart and mind counseled.


Still reticent, Baet smiled. He lifted his shirt and turned his back to Toar. "You remember that half Trohl whore I spoke of? Seems the drips weren't the only thing she gave me."


Indeed, they were not! Toar studied the scratches that ran down Baet's back. Several were healed and fading, but a few were red and pocked with white and black streaks of infection.


"And here on my shoulder," Baet continued. A round bite mark on the guard's shoulder was also infected in several spots.


"Why did you sleep with her?" Toar asked with a frown. "Was she really so pretty?"


"Actually... yeah," Baet nodded. "But that wasn't why. At first, I was forced into the situation, and then I was weak. She was blonde, and had beautiful teeth. Her skin was dotted with a fine patter of freckles. Her eyes were like the sea on a bright day, and her tits..." Baet sighed. "To see her naked and to have her beg at my hand. Who would not take such an opportunity?"


"The way you describe it, I should think it takes a rare man," Toar shrugged.


"I am weak," Baet admitted. "But you would swoon to see her."


"You need be more careful," Toar chastised. "The most beautiful women are still capable of the ugliest acts."


"What do you know of women?" Baet asked. "They are not so easily fathomed," he said with a frown.


"Agreed. The depths of women are not easily plumbed – though we do like to try," Toar smiled. "Still, we can set this right."


Baet sighed his relief, assured he was in good hands. "I thank you."


"Dandifrod has my ointment. We will leave it with him. Still, we need something to purge this infection," Toar stated. "Lucky for you, there are answers at hand. Help me collect some peace bloom."


"What is peace bloom?" Baet asked.


Toar searched about the ground. He stepped off into a field and found a small cluster of the flower. "This one," he said and lifted the flower toward Baet.


"How much do we need?"


Toar shrugged. "A couple dozen blossoms."


Baet and Toar gathered a handful of the delicate white flower. Once they had enough, Toar gave the flowers to Baet. "Press them in your hand. Bruise them to release the oils, but do not destroy them. We do not make a paste."


Toar stoked a bit of flame from the fire and stuck a long needle in it to burn away any impurities. He used the needle to cut the pustules on Baet's back and shoulder. He soaked away the puss with a bit of cloth. Finally, he wiped the crushed flowers across the infected cuts. The operation proceeded quickly.


"Now what?" Baet asked.


Toar gave a shrug. "Now you get better. If not, we'll have to get more peace bloom, but not until tomorrow. We shall give it time to heal."


"That's it?"


"No," Toar said. "You also have to stop sleeping with whores."


Baet frowned. "It is my time and metal! If they want it, I should only hope to find them less aggressive," he said. "Speaking of time and metal, how 'bout we train for a bit? We can practice blade, hand, or both if you prefer."


Toar was hesitant, "I don't think so."


"Show me what you know," Baet insisted. "You certainly have a fine looking sword."


"Do you not want sleep?" Toar countered.


"Nowadays, sleep is all I get. Sleep and saddle rash," Baet stated. "Come on. Practice with me. There is nothing else to do but watch the Tears of the Old Mother fall from the sky, and they do not guarantee a show."


Toar acquiesced, though his disinterest showed. He took his sword out and began to swing it around. He made awkward slashes at the air.


For a time, Baet watched. Finally, the man-at-arms shook his head. "You have such a nice sword and I bet you couldn't kill a chicken with it. How did you come about such a blade?"


Toar shook his head, "I took it off a guard."


"You took it from someone?" Baet asked, dubious of the assertion.


"He was drunk and could barely stand," Toar revealed with a shrug. "Also, I needed a weapon. These forests are now full of terrors since there are no people to keep them at bay."


Baet laughed, "You may have a weapon but someone needs to teach you how to use it!"


Toar frowned. Once again, he didn't like this man.


Baet clapped Toar on the shoulder. "Come now. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," Baet winked. "Now, stand like this."


Toar stood like Baet.


"No, like this," Baet said.


"I am," Toar replied, annoyed.


"No. Your butt is too far back and your head is too far forward. Put your shins forward and your butt under you. Put your chest forward and your head back. Use your whole body so no one part tires out first," Baet surveyed Toar's corrections. "Much better! Now you engage your muscles like you mean to fight! Draw yourself in with your exhale. You are releasing yourself into the world! You are condensed! Get big with your inhale. You take the world in! You expand!"


Toar followed the orders and Baet gave a satisfied nod.


"Good! Now, when you swing the blade, don't let it pull you. You pull it. Think of it as an extension of your arm. You don't throw your arm out there and let weight pull it down! You put your fist where you want it to be! Like this!" Baet threw a quick punch at Toar's face. The man's fist stopped before he hit the Trohl. "You put your fist right where you want to put it and not an inch further! Same with your sword! You're not fighting the ground! So don't swing at the ground!" Baet took the sword from Toar. "Like this!"


Baet stepped forward and swung the blade. It stopped parallel to the ground. He swung several times and the blade always stopped in what Toar thought was mid swing. Baet swung the weapon in a flurry and huffed as he worked. Rage filled his eyes as he cut at the air. He stopped. The anger drained from his face and he turned to Toar with a smile.


"It is a fine weapon," Baet admired. "It has a nice weight and good balance. Now, if you wish to use it well, you must get acquainted," Baet said and gave the blade back to Toar. "Practice like this for now. We will work with arcs and angles as you progress."


Toar mimicked the motions.


"Don't hold your breath. In or out, but do not hold it!"


Toar continued to practice, now breathing.


"Much better! Remember, butt under you, head back, heart forward!" Baet frowned as he watched Toar swing the weapon. "No wonder you fight with rocks!"


Toar didn't like the comment. He stopped swinging.


"Don't be sore," Baet began, his face quite serious. "You don't pretend to know. That's valuable. I'll teach you to fight. I'll turn you into a regular killer if you want. You got my back, brother! You think I won't teach you how to fight?" Baet smiled. "As for my words, don't let them bother you. War encompasses everything. If I get under your skin, you've already lost. You'll rush your attack. You'll make mistakes, and a capable enemy will gut you with your own missteps. Beside, don't let a guy named Baet taunt you," he said. "That is truly bad form."


Toar smiled at that.


"Now show me what I showed you."


Their practice continued for some time as Toar acquainted himself with his weapon. They continued until Toar worked up a lather. Finally, Toar needed a break, and Baet allowed him to take it.

"Have you ever taken a life?" Toar asked as he sat with his sword.


"Seven," Baet counted his fingers. "Two quite recently."


"Did you know them?"


"Not a one," Baet shrugged.


"Was it difficult?"


"In what way? Like, did they fight back?" Baet asked.


"Is it easy to take a life, if you're trained for it?"


"I wouldn't say it's easy, but it's never been difficult," Baet answered. "Once I realize there's blood on the line, there's nothing to do but kill or be killed."


"I should think it is hard to kill a man," Toar stated.


"It's much easier than you think. I bet you'd be shocked by the ease of it, especially if you have something like this," Baet picked Thunder Maker from its holster and pointed it at the sliver of Oblaran.


Toar examined the fancy weapon. "Might I see it?"


"Do not fire it," Baet stated. "You'll wake half the valley, and Dandifrod will hang us both if we start firing muskets for no reason with Ministrians about."


"And bugbear," Toar noted. His hand caressed the smooth handle of Thunder Maker. "Is this a precious stone?"


"The most precious," Baet grinned. "Meteorite: I found it when I was very young. The thing almost landed on me."


"I've seen plenty of meteors – but I've yet to see one hit the ground," Toar replied.


"This one landed in a farmer's field while I fished. Scared the hell out of me. It killed a dozen cattle or so. I found it in a crater maybe fifteen feet deep."


"You didn't leave it for the farmer?"


"I didn't – and I felt bad about it for a few days. But the farmer wouldn't have kept it. King Gred duReb sent a company of soldiers to the farm that he might have the meteor himself. When the farmer couldn't produce the stone and the soldiers couldn't find it, they took everything the farmer had to compensate the king for his loss," Baet explained.


Toar was aghast, "and you didn't feel bad?"


"No. I feel it never belonged to the king, or the farmer for that matter. It was just a stone in the field, and I was the one to find it," he reasoned. "Oh, I felt bad for the farmer – for a time. The King never should have stolen his remaining cattle and the food he grew. Although the king left him destitute, he survived. The neighbors were aghast to hear what happened, and donated seed and young animals to keep the farm alive and his family fed. Dandifrod caught word of what happened. He sent an emissary, a captain of trade, and when he saw how the community had rallied around the farmer, he bought up the surplus of our industry: aged mutton and beef, cloth spun from hemp and wool, and some of the finest apple brandy you've ever tasted. I imagine he made quite a nice profit in the capital. He returned for several years and did a large amount of buying and selling in the market. He brought fashions from the city and took a good deal of our own stuff back with him. That's when I knew Dandifrod was very different from the king. He was a good man. He didn't bluster and demand tribute that wasn't his. Instead, he sent one of his men to make sure we were fine, despite the King's interference."


"And so you decided to guard him?" Toar asked.


"Yeah, that's the gist of it," Baet shrugged and let the subject drop.


"How old were you when you found it?"


"Ten," Baet shrugged. "Eleven?"


"So many colors," Toar noted. "It is a very handsome weapon."


"I call it Thunder Maker."


"Because it is loud?" Toar smiled. "And the other one?"


"It is Cloud Breaker."


"Because it breaks the clouds?"


"No," Baet frowned. "Mostly because Thunder Maker and Cloud Breaker sound good together. I will say, it does put off a good amount of smoke."


"Why not call it Cloud Maker?"


"Thunder Maker and Cloud Maker?" Baet grimaced. "That sounds terrible."


"But Cloud Breaker? The name seems spurious."


Baet thought on it for several seconds. "It brings a rain of tears!" He finally announced. "It makes widows and causes a flood of sorrow!" Baet stated, only too happy to strike on a new line of reasoning.


Toar smirked, unimpressed. "What of your knives? What are their names?"


"This is Gore Tongue, and this is Haddelton's short sword," he said with a frown. "It has no other name yet."


"Who is Haddelton?"


"A fallen brother," Baet pulled the sword and swung it about. "A good man. One who left us far too soon."


"Why does it have no name?"


"I haven't killed anyone with it," Baet shrugged. "No kill means no name."


"You've killed with both muskets and your knife?" Toar asked.


Baet shrugged. "I named Thunder Maker after I attached the meteorite to it. Years later, it saved my life from a couple thugs in Rottershelm. After that, I always thought a weapon should be tried and true before it was named. Others name their weapons as soon as they get them, and some never name their weapons at all. Carringten never names his weapons despite his kills. He also has more weapons than any man has a right to own," Baet surmised. "It'd take him a month to name his armory, even if he used the most common titles: Phil and Garrett and Kenseth..."


"How many weapons does he have?" Toar asked.


"Lots," Baet answered. "He must have a dozen swords and twice as many knives. He has hatchets, war axes, spears, mauls, pikes, bows – even a few muskets of his own – though he rarely carries them. In Gaurring Heart, he has a small cottage, and all the walls are covered with weapons."


"How many men has he killed?"


Baet shrugged.


"I fought and killed the first bugbear I ever saw," Toar admitted. "The beast had a spear, and I had a long knife. He tried to run me through, but I deflected his blow and found myself right on top of him. I stabbed him a bunch of times until I felt him go limp, and that was that," Toar admitted. "I cried – mostly because I was scared, but in part for killing the beast."


"Bugbear are pretty big," Baet nodded with approval.


"He was a nasty thing with dirty teeth and fowl breath," Toar shrugged. "The second bugbear I ever saw threw a mallet that missed me by inches. I ran from him. He had friends and they chased me for the better part of the day, and into the night. I sprang one of their traps as I ran. That's how I learned all about rot root. Look," Toar stood and dropped his pants. He pulled the left side of his underwear high to show his cheek.


"Hey! Put your butt away!" Baet complained.

"No, look. I have a scar from the rot," Toar said.


With a frown, Baet slowly turned toward the Trohl. He looked at Toar's cheek and his upper leg. A large web of scar tissue stretched from the back of his knee, up his thigh, over his hip, and along his side. It wrapped all the way around Toar's leg.


"Balls!" Baet said as he admired the scar. "No wonder you know so much about the disease."


As Baet admired the scar, Carringten and Dandifrod stepped from their tent into the fire's light and saw Baet staring at Toar's butt.


"Are we interrupting?" Carringten asked.


"Come see this! He has one just like you!" Baet said to Dandifrod.


"Most men do," Dandifrod frowned.


"No!" Baet huffed. "He has a scar! From the rot!"


The scar was quite a bit larger than the webbed infection on Dandifrod's side. "This is a troubling vision," Dandifrod noted as he inspected the wound. "How long did it fester?"


"Five days," Toar stated. "If not for Hazle's ointment, I never would have survived."


"Toar was telling me of his first scrapes with bugbear," Baet explained. "He thinks it is more difficult to kill a man than a beast."


"Men bleed just as easily," Carringten said.


"Have you ever killed a man?" Toar asked.


"A few," Carringten shrugged.


"How many?"


Carringten shook hi head. "I never bothered to count."


"Baet's killed seven. Is that a lot?" Toar asked the captain.


"Sounds like a lot to me," Carringten said. "If I remember correctly, he killed a couple of them while wearing nothing but underwear."


"Har har," Baet frowned.


"And you?" Toar asked Dandifrod. "Have you ever killed a man?"


"With my hands? Thrice," Dandifrod noted. "But I have killed more with my words. Sometimes I wonder how many. It is a fair deal easier in the heat of the moment, when life hangs in the balance. I never regret those. The death that issues from my mouth has caused me many sleepless nights. It is the death of friends and foes alike. I say a few words and men march out to do violence. These deaths are cheap in action, but expensive in thought. There must be thousands by now."


Toar stared at the old man. "Who are you?"


Dandifrod smiled, "I am Creigal berDuvante, Duke of Gaurring, High Protector of the Gaur, Third Chair of the Phoenix Council. Do you recognize me?"


"I do not," Toar admitted. "You certainly have a long enough name."


"I certainly do! Too long I should think! And that is why I ask you to call me Dandifrod. Dandifrod of the Emberwood Trust if you must be fancy! Will you do this for me?" Creigal asked.


Toar nodded and smiled. "I am good at keeping secrets,"


~!@#$%^&*()_+


As the days passed, Dandifrod became increasingly weak. Toar gave him fio each morning – but it was losing its effectiveness. This day, as the sun rolled through its zenith and began its descent, Toar gave Dandifrod a second dose. The duke smiled and thanked the Trohl.

Toar feared Dandifrod was addicted to the fio. Yet without it, the old man could not ride all day. Toar figured it was better to let the man become an addict, and have a habit to break, than to let him slow their progress. By Toar's estimation, Dandifrod only had a day or two before the rot overcame him and he finally died anyway. They were running thin on time.


"And how do you feel, High Protector of the Gaur?" Toar asked as he looked over the wound once more.


Dandifrod chuckled. "I feel terrible, but I should think it'd be worse if I did not know you."


"You'd be dead," Toar frowned. "Still, we are losing this war. You must feel it. You are fading beyond my abilities."


"I can feel it," Dandifrod nodded.


"There is time. Tomorrow, we turn north and make for Hazle's cottage. We shall be there by evening. She can heal you. She healed me. But I must warn you, the process is not pleasant."


"Whatever it is, it will be worth it to be rid of this ache," Dandifrod nodded. "You are sure of my recovery?"


"I am hopeful," Toar hedged. "You should be okay so long as there are no complications."


"When are there ever no complications?"


Toar shrugged. "Then let us hope that the complications are not too complicated. I fear you are also becoming addicted to the fio."


"Is this too complicated?" Dandifrod asked. "Or will I simply suffer withdrawals? Should I abstain from the drug?"


"No, we will keep you on the medicine until you reach Hazle. It still helps, does it not?"


"Not as much as the first day, I should think, but I feel it is still effective," Dandifrod surmised.


"Then we continue," Toar said. "I admit, you are becoming something of a mess."


Dandifrod gave a weak smile, "I feel it. To my bones, I feel it. But what else is there?"


Toar did not answer. He only nodded and bandaged the man's side. Baet and Carringten were away as they looked for any rabbits, ducks, fish, or other small game they might shoot or trap. Alone with the Duke, Toar thought it was a good time to address other concerns. "The birds follow you," he noted.


Creigal straightened but made no reply.


"I have never seen such a thing. Not without the use of seed or other enticement," Toar continued. "Why are they so interested in you?"


"These are the woods," Creigal said as if to dismiss the question. "There are many birds about."


Toar shook his head. "I have been in these woods for years and I know its inhabitants. There are too many birds about. They flock to you. There is a magic to it. Somehow you attract them."


Creigal studied the Trohl. After a time, he said. "You have a sharp eye."


Toar didn't reply. He simply waited for the duke to continue.


"You are good with secrets," Creigal noted.


"I try to be," Toar admitted. "Around here, there are few to tell. Few but the birds."


"Still, it seems all the secrets go one way between us."


"That is not true," Toar frowned. "I have told you of my distrust of Kezodel."


"How is that a secret?" Creigal asked.


"Surely a man as important as you can see the danger in this. What if you told Kezodel I do not like him? He is capricious and powerful. It could be my death," Toar shrugged. "Beside, I have shared my knowledge of herbs and sickness. Between us, secrets abound."


"You do treat my disease," Creigal smiled. "And you also treated my gunman – despite a disagreeable disposition."


Toar wondered if Creigal knew to what extent he treated Baet, or did the duke speak only of the first night? He pushed that aside. "I will continue to keep your secrets. From your enemies as well as your friends, even if you will not tell me more of the birds, I will not tell anyone."


"But you already know the biggest part of it, the birds flock to me," Creigal smiled. "Very well! I shall tell you as you know most of it anyway: the birds speak to me. They've always spoken to me. Indeed, they speak to all of us – I just happen to understand them.


"As a child, I told my parents and my servants of such things," Creigal continued. "My parents believed me, though they insisted amongst the others that it was nothing but a fanciful imagination. My parents knew my secret before I did. Initially, I thought all people could speak to birds," Creigal shrugged. "This skill has been in my family at least nine generations, though it skips about. Our crest is the kite in honor of this deep secret. Indeed, this power helped make us great among men. I know four cousins that have the skill the same as I. Yet, none of my sons speak with birds, and they do not know I can do such a thing. None of them have read the journals of my grandfather, of his mother, or of the others that had this skill. They had access to the books, but they were not a studious lot. I thought to teach the oldest, when he was very young. but I could not. I do not properly understand how it works."


"Then it is magic," Toar answered. "What is it they say to you?"


"What do you think birds say to a man?" Creigal asked with a shrug. "Mostly they speak of food; seed, worms, mice. They speak of their eggs, their young, their mates, their nests, the weather, the wind... Some tell me of other men. They tell me when the Ministrians approach long before we see them coming down the road. Some tell me of strange things, I do not always understand. They told me of the bugbear – but it was of predators they spoke. I thought we might find wild dogs, a mountain lion, or maybe just snakes or rats. Indeed, I thought we should see nothing. Many things that birds consider dangerous are quite afraid of men. They do not show themselves to us."


"This is all of it?"


"No. The birds have told me of the bugbear twice as we have traveled," Creigal admitted.


"This happened today," Toar realized. "You pretended to hear something yourself, but it was really the birds."


Creigal nodded. "Now that I understand what the birds are telling me. We have been lucky. We have passed the bugbear twice without them noticing us."


"They are not usually this far east," Toar frowned. "They expand their territory. It was folly for Kezodel to empty this land. Now it breeds enemies."


Creigal nodded. "In Gaurring, I have used the birds to track the comings and goings of the men I know. They have revealed a few traitors and soothed an unwarranted suspicion or two. They cannot track everyone and they do not understand the things most people say. They only attend me for so long before they grow bored of my games, but you can see how this gives me advantage. That is why the ability is a guarded secret. Besides, who would believe me? My own men and advisors would think me sick if I claimed I talked to birds!"


"All your guards? All your various councillors? None of them know of this?"


"I do not tell anyone, yet a few of them notice. My chamberlain, peiTernays, he knows. Still, some of the men closest to me do not know. Carringten does not know, and I doubt Baet has discovered it. Indeed, I am impressed you have noticed ii in so little time."


Toar blushed at the compliment. "Which birds are the smartest?" He asked. "Is it the owls? The eagles?"


"I find the crows tend to have the largest vocabulary – but all the races are quite capable," Creigal shrugged. "Sometimes, it is a finch that has the most interesting ideas. Sometimes it is a hawk, a dove, a robin... They are all quite like men with their various talents, temperaments, and concerns. Owls can be hard to understand. There is much they see that others miss, and their language is specialized to the night. I think most consider them wise because they know the dark and turn their heads so far. Still, you'd be surprised how daft owls can be about some of the simplest things, especially if these things require the light of day."


"Have you met others that speak to birds?"


"Not outside my family. I have met several men that speak to dogs, and a lady that speaks to animals of every sort, but none others that speak strictly to birds."


"How do the birds know you understand?" Toar asked.


"I am sure they know by my reactions. One will say something off color or out of the ordinary, and I cannot help but smile, or turn toward the culprit," Creigal said. "Then, because one of them knows it, they all quickly know it. Birds pay us a lot more attention than we pay them."


Baet and Carringten stepped across the field. When they saw Creigal and Toar look at them, they held up vegetables and a dead wild turkey.


Toar frowned, "I hope he is not a friend of yours."


Creigal laughed, "I do not kill birds myself. But I do not condemn others for the sport. Even birds eat other birds," Creigal shrugged. "I thank you for not mentioning this in front of my men."


"You are welcome. We all have our secrets. Do we not?"


~!@#$%^&*()_+


The next day, about a mile off the main road, Creigal fell from his saddle. He managed to break the fall, sliding unceremoniously off his horse. Increasingly weak from the ever growing rot in his side, Creigal could not get back in his saddle. He complained of dizziness.


Toar felt it was too early to administer a second dose of fio. He dug about his pack and looked for anything else he might give the man, though he knew the effort was futile. What might he use that was stronger than fio?


"I shall make him a litter," Carringten insisted. Baet and Toar helped as Creigal laid in the grass. With three men to split the work, the litter was quickly completed. They picked the duke off the grass and set him in the litter. Creigal slept as the horse dragged him along the road. Toar realized they no longer had someone to warn them of caravans and buggers. He decided he'd be extra vigilant today.


As Creigal slept, he suffered a fever dream, vivid and distinct. He dreamed he pulled his teeth – all but the canines. He admired each tooth as he tossed it aside. As each tooth fell, it took root and sprouted trees, flowers, and vegetables. Creigal was fascinated by the blooming vegetation. Others were horrified to see the loss of his teeth and were upset by the fecund wilds that sprang up all around them. One by one, they abandoned their toothless leader. Of all the people, none of them concerned the duke except his daughter. She did not abandon him. Daphne smiled at her father and whispered words of encouragement as he pulled each tooth.


Finally, Creigal pulled his canines. They did not turn to vegetables as he tossed them in the dirt. Instead, warriors sprung from these teeth and marched away with menace and fervor in their stride. They stood among the vegetables, as they meant to protect this ad hoc garden.


With no further teeth to seed the earth, Creigal began to wander. His people no longer recognized him. As he wandered, Creigal saw his daughter in every reflective surface. She called to him and begged him to approach, but he did not. He was afraid of her reflected world and the strange things he saw all around her. After a time, his fear turned to fascination and Creigal found himself at a fountain, caught between a love for his daughter and a fear of her strange world.


A holy man appeared. He was a light skinned fellow that talked incessantly, though he spoke an unknown language. The holy man had elaborate tattoos written in a foreign tongue, and intricate ceremonial garb. He rode a dragon with feathered wings. The dragon itself had a soft tuft of down the entire length of its back. It was an incredible beast, much larger than any dragon Creigal ever imagined – and not at all like the depiction of real dragons. Although it kept the holy man company, the dragon was very much it's own master. As Creigal admired the beast, the holy man invited him to ride upon its back.


Creigal sat upon the dragon's soft down as the holy man pulled the fear from the Duke. The holy man held Creigal's fear, a dark orb of roiling emptiness. But the orb of fear was slick, and slipped from the holy man's hand and fell into the fountain. The dragon sprang into the fountain after the orb of fear, and the holy man grabbed the dragon's tail as it disappeared into the fountain's water.


Suddenly, they were high in the sky above a foreign land. Creigal's fear sparked and shot darkness at the duke. Creigal cringed from the object. Energy lanced from the orb and struck the old man. Wave after wave of nausea swept over him. The holy man leapt from the dragon and grabbed at the dark orb. He plummeted into darkness with the orb of fear caught in his grasp. The holy man began to glow and a war of light and dark took shape as the holy man and the fear contended with each other. The dragon changed directions and carried Creigal away.


Creigal watched the disappearing fear. A hand wrapped about his waist and Creigal turned to find his daughter behind him on the dragon. She embraced her father and set her head on his shoulder as they rode on the dragon's back. "I knew you would find me," she smiled. Creigal's heart broke to have his daughter at hand once more. In silence, they rode through the night sky.


Creigal flew with his daughter for what seemed like forever – yet it seemed like no time at all. As the sun rose, the dragon descended into a foreign land. Though he could not name the place, Creigal recognized it as a land of tragedy and hope, sin and sanctity, want and abundance. Lights of every color sparkled from the city. Creigal was enthralled. It was like nothing he had ever seen! The dragon set Creigal and his daughter on the roof of a great building. There, Creigal weighed his coin, changed it for decorative paper, and was Creigal berDuvante no more. He did not mind. Daphne was with him.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


As Creigal dreamed, the party approached Halze's cottage on the edge of a small village. As the party approached, Toar became increasingly worried. There was nobody around: no men, women, children, dogs, chickens, goats, sheep... Nothing stirred in the village. Toar feared Kezodel had once again shifted the lines of acceptable settlement. If so, everyone in the village was now either east or in prison.


Toar knocked at Hazle's door. Nobody answered. He was not surprised, but he was disappointed as he banged on the door once more. He tried to open the door, but it was locked – not that it would do him any good to get inside. Even if he had all of Hazle's tools and medicines, he did not have the skill to use them. "This isn't good," Toar muttered.


"No, it isn't," Baet agreed, and pointed down the street at several soldiers in Saot uniforms. The party was not fooled. These were Ministrian shock troops. More men approached from behind. The party was encircled as men appeared on both sides and at several angles between. All the men wore the same Saot crest.


"We cannot fight them all," Carringten said and put up his hands. Baet holstered his muskets and also put his hands in the air. Toar set his sword in the dirt and lifted his palms.


"You cannot be here!" One of the Ministrians called in his own language. "Don't you know there is a war going on?"


"So we've heard," Carringten answered. "We were more concerned with our master."


"What happened to him?" The Ministrian asked as he approached.


"He is infected with rot root," Carringten said.


"What is this?" the man asked.


"The rot of the buggers," Toar said. He lifted Creigal's shirt enough that the man might see.


"Holy Ooroiyuo! It's the sweet rot!" the Ministrian covered his face.


"We are seeking a witch named Hazle. She lives in this hut," Toar continued.


"You consort with the enemy," the Ministrian accused.


"We care only that she can heal our master," Carringten replied.


The Ministrian shook his head. "There is no one here. Can't you see? Everyone is at the camp."


"We must find her. If she is at the camp, we wish to go there," Carringten said.


"Oh you will," the Ministrian smiled and had his men confiscate their weapons. The Ministrians turned the small party south – back to the main road – as Creigal continued to dream.