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28 January 2009 @ 07:38 am
The Gauntlet Thrown - Chapter Thirty  


Toryn looked out onto the grass-covered hillsides feeling like a man who has seen Adonai. He burst away from the last vestiges of the clinging jungle and threw himself into the grass, rolling around like an exuberant puppy.

“No more rain!” he moaned happily. “No more buzzing, biting, blood-sucking insects! No slime-covered rotted trees blocking every path and hiding the sun! No slithering predators hiding behind every bush! Just warm sun, clean grass, and rolling hills as far as the eye can see! I am home!”

Garyn took it much more calmly. “This is Thalarii?” he asked Poodik, who nodded, grinning.

“Thalarii,” he agreed.

Toryn leaped up and filled his lungs with the heady scent of summer and the smell of the deep grass.

“This is a really great place,” he said in perfect contentment.

“Is Redol like this?” Garyn asked as Toryn got to his feet. They started walking, moving southward once more.

“Just like this, only colder. There is always a cold wind blowing off the sea, not a nice warm breeze like this. I wonder where the sea is, or if this is just a large valley in the midst of the jungle,” he mused and then shrugged. “The grass is softer here, more fragile. In Redol, the grass is very sturdy. Made to withstand winter storms, I suppose.”

“Where are we going?” he asked after a time. Poodik, having heard the question from Toryn’s mouth about eight hundred times, obviously recognized it and gestured southward with his spear.

“I know that. South. I don’t want to go south. I need to go north. I have to get back to Silver. I have to find Keev and rescue Alyn.” And kill Reed.

“Perhaps Poodik knows a way to skirt the jungle,” Garyn suggested.

“Perhaps Poodik is out for a holy day jaunt and brought us along for the ride,” Toryn snapped. His initial excitement over the plains had waned. It seemed much hotter without the cooling overhang of jungle foliage. Garyn drank of his water skin frequently until Toryn told him to take it easy. Water might be hard to find among the rolling hills.

The sun was still high when Poodik threw himself bodily against the side of a hill and crawled through the grass to the crest. Toryn watched curiously as he poked his head up through the waving strands, ducked back down and motioned for Toryn and Garyn to join him. They stayed low as they climbed the short rise and peered out over the broad plain that stretched before them.

Garyn was actually speechless at the sight and Toryn almost stood up in surprise.

“I don’t believe it,” he said with a gasp.

“Avani,” Poodik said proudly. “Horse.”

Horse was right. Toryn had never seen so many horses in his life. They streamed across the plain in every color, size and shape, and there were hundreds of them. He and Garyn got to their feet and walked toward the galloping herd in a daze, ignoring Poodik’s protests.

“I’ll bet the Akarskans don’t know about this,” Toryn said and Garyn shook his head in agreement. The horses galloped away to the east and Poodik pulled at Toryn’s arm. His eyes darted about.

“Thalarii,” he said.

“We know this is Thalarii, Poodik,” Toryn said and grinned. “But where did all the horses come from?”

“They came from here and here they will remain, Voor,” a harsh voice said from behind them. “What do you want?”

They turned slowly to see a woman and two men mounted on magnificent steeds. The men held short bows leveled at Toryn and Poodik. A wicked-looking spear in the hand of the girl threatened Garyn with impalement.

“Do you have enmity with the Voor?” Garyn asked and Toryn admired his cool. He felt quite nervous staring down the end of an arrow.

“No,” the girl said. “But they have not been known to enter our lands, either.”

“We are not Voor,” Toryn said.

“You are dressed like Voor,” the girl stated matter-of-factly. She was trim and compact with a figure Toryn could learn to love without half-trying. She had raven-black hair caught at the nape of her neck. She was dressed in soft-looking cloth of vibrant turquoise overlaid with strips of dark brown leather. The men were similarly dressed in bright colors and leather and one had the same dark hair and brooding features of the girl. The other had curly red-brown hair and looked as if he wouldn’t have the fortitude to kill a snake if its fangs were attached to his leg.

“If we were dressed like wolves, would that make us wolves?” Toryn asked dryly. The girl looked puzzled and glanced at the black-haired man, who threw her an equally confused look. The other man grinned and said, “Only if you had fangs and tails to match. Where are you from, strangers? And where bound?”

“I am Toryn, from far, very far, to the north of here. This is Garyn of Bodor, and Poodik… well, he is a Voor. We don’t know where we are bound, being quite seriously lost, but hopefully we can find our way back to Silver. Not through the jungle, however.”

“Strange places,” the man said. “I am Kalyn, the girl is Daryna and the glaring one is her brother, Brighthoof. He has not yet earned his true name.”

The black-haired man, who now looked a couple of years younger than Toryn, was apparently not pleased at Kalyn imparting this last piece of information, judging by the look of disgusted annoyance he threw at the man.

“Come,” Kalyn said. “You will join us at camp and there we will hear your story.”

The girl broke in angrily. “I will decide what we shall do with them, Kalyn,” she snapped arrogantly. “My father is the chief, after all. You are merely a guest.”

“Of course, Daryna,” Kalyn said patiently. “How foolish of me to forget. What shall we do with them?”

“We shall—” She broke off with a scowl. “Do you mock me, Kalyn?” For answer, Kalyn sighed, slung his bow over his shoulder, wheeled his horse and cantered away. The girl looked after him, tight-lipped and glaring, before turning back to the others.

“You will accompany us to camp where my father and I,” she emphasized the last words, “Will hear your story and decide what to do with you.”

With that, she tossed her head and galloped after Kalyn.

“Power-hungry little minx,” Toryn commented. Garyn nodded.

“Move along,” Brighthoof commanded.

The three of them obediently followed. Poodik muttered angrily all the way and fastidiously avoided the fresh piles of horse droppings that lay in their path. Toryn assumed his action was not from any desire to stay clean, for all three of them were filthy, covered with the grime of the jungle and the dust of the plains—and streaked with red from the insect-repelling plants. They smelled quite rank.

“I think Poodik dislikes horses,” Garyn commented.

Toryn nodded. They had briefly considered leaving the Gauntlet hidden in the grass where it lay, but Toryn knew they would never be able to find it again. If the Thalarii had evil intentions, they would learn of it soon enough, with or without the Gauntlet. With it, perhaps they would have a bargaining tool.

It was late afternoon before they reached a large encampment on the banks of what Toryn later discovered was the Thalar River. A hundred pairs of eyes fixed on them as Brighthoof led them between two crude huts constructed of hide and grasses and river reeds.

Although there were only two huts, Toryn noticed hides, furs, blankets and saddles scattered randomly across the side of the hill near the river. The tribesmen were interspersed among their belongings, seated on the ground or mounted on horses. The herd they had been trailing was belly deep in the river, drinking, and many had already crossed to the other side, watched casually by a couple of lanky teens mounted on fine horses.

There was silence in the camp and Toryn supposed correctly that this was due to the presence of strangers—themselves.

Brighthoof led them to a tall white-haired man with a gray beard. He was dressed in white leather breeches. A cloth of turquoise hung from waist to knees, split to the hip on both sides and richly embroidered at the hem in golden thread. He wore no shirt, only two leather armbands around his upper arms. His face was deeply lined from age and squinting into the sun and wind, but he looked anything but old. In fact, Toryn decided, looking at the man’s great chest and rippling muscles, he wanted to look as good when he was aged. The man watched through expressionless blue eyes as they approached.

Daryna stood beside him, her head held up haughtily, arms crossed like the chief. Brighthoof cantered over to the river to water his steed. Kalyn was nowhere in sight.

“Daryna tells me you have traveled a great distance,” the man said in a deep voice, regarding them. “What do you seek?”

“We seek nothing on the Plains of the Thalarii,” Garyn said. “We wish to return to Silver, over the Ven-Horn Mountains.”

The man showed no surprise. “You travel in the wrong direction.”

Toryn nodded. “We are aware of that. Poodik guided us and we were hoping he could find a way back to Silver without crossing through the jungle. He brought us here.”

“He brought you falsely. There is no way to cross the Ven Horns except through the jungle. The jungle is a barrier across the entire land.”

Toryn looked at Poodik in annoyance. “Surely he brought us here for a reason. There is no other way? Not even by ship?”

The chief’s gaze upon him sharpened. “Why were you in the jungle at all if you wish to return to the North Lands so badly?”

“I had little choice. I was unconscious and bound, captured by the Voor.”

The chief gazed at Poodik, puzzled. Toryn sighed in frustration. He glanced around at the tribe. All were listening avidly and making no pains to conceal the fact.

“I was marked for sacrifice. Poodik helped me to escape, as did Garyn,” he explained. “By then, we were deep in the jungle.”

The chief nodded his head solemnly and seemed to be deep in thought. “Why did this Voor help you?”

Toryn knew that his reply might put them into deep hot water. What if the Thalarii were worshippers of Shaitan? His hand tightened on the Gauntlet case, which he had kept close to hand.

“Poodik does not agree with the teachings of Shaitan,” he said.

The chief showed no change in expression. He was silent until Toryn felt he would burst from the strain and then he said, “You may remain with us until I decide what shall be done with you. It is not often we have strangers on the Plain.”

Daryna gave the chief a sharp look at that, but said nothing as the man turned away and walked to one of the huts. As if it were a signal to her to begin giving orders, she did so.

“You may sit,” she said regally, “at the chief’s fire.” This was delivered as though it were the greatest honor anyone could possibly attain.

Toryn nodded. “We are honored,” he said and the girl looked at him in surprise. She had apparently expected nothing but barbaric manners from them. She led them up the crest of the hill where several skins had been laid out about a dead fire and covered in rich furs and blankets. Daryna sank down on one and began to build a fire, motioning for the others to be seated.

Toryn sat where he could keep a close eye on the huts. He watched as the tribe broke up, built their own fires, or thundered across the plains in joyful races. They seemed to live on their horses and many people were combing the sleek coats of their animals or rubbing them down with handfuls of the tall grass.

After a short time, Daryna got up to find some more fuel for the fire and Toryn watched the plains people more openly. He was amazed that they just camped out in the open. In Redol, life was similar, except for the lack of horseflesh. Redolians were a nomadic people, following herds of cattle from one pasture to another, but Redol had been such a country for years and the cattle were driven from one campsite to another. The campsites were built of stone and walled like villages to guard against stampedes and Falarans. Their campsites were permanent and it was much like moving from village to village, whereas this settlement could be picked up and moved anywhere on the plains. It seemed nothing was constant.

Then again, the campsites in Redol had been built largely because of the weather. It was usually cold in Redol and snow-covered much of the year. Even in summer brutal storms were not unknown. On these mild plains, Toryn doubted they saw anything stronger than gentle thunderstorms.

Daryna returned carrying a leather sack full of cattle chips. In a place where wood was scarce, one used what was available. She tossed several of them on the fire and glanced at Toryn, who motioned toward the two buildings.

“What do you use the huts for, if everyone sleeps under the stars?”

Daryna shrugged. “If it rains, we have a dry place to store the extra blankets, but usually we keep them for the young ones when it is hot, as it was today.” As if to confirm her words, a child burst from one of the huts, laughing, and ran to the nearest horse. He had thrown himself at the saddle and was halfway up the horse before his mother caught him and towed him, giggling, back to the hut. Toryn grinned at the sight and Daryna also smiled, the first time he had seen her do so. She was quite pretty when her face softened.

“That is Swiftarrow. If he had gotten into the saddle, he would have given us all a merry chase.”

“Where did all the horses come from?” Garyn asked. Daryna looked puzzled at the question.

“What do you mean by 'come from'? They have always been here.”

The chief came out of the hut and headed for their fire. Toryn was unsure whether or not to stand and Daryna was no help, so he just sat where he was, feeling uncomfortable. He felt considerably underdressed, wearing only the thin leather breechclout of the Voor when all the tribesmen were clad in leather breeches and fine soft shirts of varying colors. All wore swaths of cloth hanging from their waists like the chief, in differing colors and with many designs stitched upon them.

It occurred to Toryn that Daryna and Brighthoof both wore the same turquoise color and he assumed it to be familial of a sort. As the chief drew near, Kalyn detached himself from a group and join the chief, not speaking. His colors were red-violet, with silver embroidered in the shape of a rearing horse.

The chief nodded to them.

“I am Haaryd,” he said. “This is my tribe and I bid you welcome. I have spoken to my wife. It has been decided that you will be taken south to Darii, in order that you may find a ship to take you to Silver. It is a long journey, but there is no other port in Thalarii. You may not even find a ship there, for we are not a fisher folk, but that is the best I can offer you.”

Toryn thanked him, relieved. Daryna looked a bit annoyed at the news; perhaps she had hoped they would be tied to horses and dragged across the plains until the flesh was ripped from their bodies.

“We accept your gracious offer,” he said. If he had known just how great a distance Haaryd spoke of, he would have immediately turned around and crossed the jungle again. As it was, he assumed a journey of a few days and was glad. “I am Toryn of Redol, son of Taryn, brother of Morgyn Clan-chieftain.”

“You are from Redol?” the chief asked. Toryn was surprised he had even heard of his homeland. He nodded and Harryd said, “Then it is truly an honor to host you. You may accompany us to the next campsite. From there you will be taken to Darii by some of my warriors. I will decide who shall go." The last was said loudly, almost as an announcement. The tribe nodded collectively and they all went about the business of eating or tending their mounts. Toryn found the food delicious, a mixture of plains deer and cattle cooked into a thick stew with tubers and seasoned with fish from the river.

There was little talk over the meal and afterward everyone scurried off to do various chores, including Daryna and Brighthoof. Toryn spoke a little of Redol to the chief before the older man caught him yawning and ordered them all to sleep. They curled up gratefully on furs and blankets, but Toryn found it difficult to sleep, surrounded by people he did not know and little trusted. As the camp quieted, however, exhaustion won out and Toryn found himself drifting off. It had been an adventuresome day.

Toryn awoke feeling like someone watched him. His mind groggily pictured the Thalarii tribesmen standing over him with red eyes, slavering jaws, and glinting sharp knives. He sat up with a start and half-tugged his sword out. He stared around wildly, heart pounding. Brighthoof, who had been watching him, jumped back and fingered his bow.

Toryn, seeing that the lad was no threat, calmed himself and released his sword.

“Sorry.” He grinned. “Bad dream.”

Brighthoof scowled, obviously irritated that a foreigner had caught him unaware. Toryn looked around more casually. Garyn was still asleep, as was Poodik. The chief slept apart from them, surrounded by crimson-garbed warriors. Two of them were awake and watchful. His guards, Toryn assumed.

Daryna and Kalyn were gone, although it was not yet dawn.

“Where is your sister?” he asked Brighthoof.

“Tending the horses.”

“I see.” Toryn stood up and stretched. “Is it permissible to bathe in the river?”

“Why would it not be?” Brighthoof snapped. Toryn bit back an angry retort and stalked through the sleeping forms of the tribe, not caring who he woke in passing. The young whelp could use a lesson in manners.

The water was chill, but not ice-cold like the rivers in Redol. He walked far upstream, out of sight of the camp, and waded through thick reeds into the water. He took off the Voor leather and hung it on a reed. After a brief consideration, he unsheathed his sword and put the scabbard with the breechclout. His blade he took with him, figuring a bit of water would not hurt the steel, especially since he planned to clean and oil it as soon as he got out.

He went out until the water was chest deep and drove the sword into the river bottom near his feet. He scrubbed himself vigorously and washed the dust and sweat from his body and hair. He used sand to rid himself of the foul-smelling orange flower residue. He had just finished and tugged his sword from the river bed when he heard a laugh from shore. He looked up to find Daryna holding his breechclout. She was mounted on a dun horse and looked at him mockingly.

“What are you doing?” he asked calmly.

“I might ask the same of you,” she said. “But I won’t because I hear father calling me.” With that, she smiled, turned her horse and trotted back through the reeds to the shore, whereupon she galloped back to the encampment carrying Toryn’s meager clothing with her.

“Wait!” he yelled, trying to fight his way to shore through the water. He swore roundly as he reached his scabbard. Now what was he to do? Braid some clothing from the reeds?

Before he could decide a course of action, Brighthoof cantered up on a dark chestnut horse with a blaze and three white socks.

“Father commanded that I bring you these,” he said and tossed down some leather and cloth, making it plain that he would not have done so had he not been so ordered. Toryn sheathed his sword without a word and strode from the river to examine the clothing. It was a fine pair of leather trousers, dyed deep grey, and a cottony shirt of silver-grey. He put them on gladly.

“Grey is not a clan color,” Brighthoof said derisively. “It is worn by foreigners.”

“It does look good on me, though, does it not?” Toryn said foppishly, admiring himself as he smoothed down the soft shirt. Brighthoof snorted and trotted off.

On his way back to camp, Toryn ran into Garyn, who must have had the same idea as Toryn, for his hair was wet from bathing. He was dressed as Toryn in grey shirt and breeches. He combed his brown hair with a carved bone comb.

“Where did you get that?” Toryn asked. Garyn grinned and tossed him the comb.

“A maiden lent it to me.”

“A maiden? When did you have time to meet a maiden? The sun has barely risen.”

“She followed me to the river.” Garyn shrugged. “Washed my back for me, too.” Toryn stopped tugging at his locks for a moment and stared at Garyn before scoffing.

“Right. They were also riding around on blue horses with bird wings this morning.”

Garyn shrugged and smiled. “You need not believe me.”

Toryn snorted, combing his hair. Still, he wondered...

The chief broke fast with them and then offered them their choice of mounts after they went to examine the small herd that had been brought back from across the river. Garyn picked out a young sorrel stallion that held his head proudly and looked spirited. Before Toryn could choose, Daryna cantered up, towing a liver-colored stallion that had a dangerous look in his eyes.

“Here, Toryn,” she said. “I have brought Bloodsong for you.” There was a distinct challenge in her voice and Toryn cocked a brow at her. Haaryd gave his daughter a warning look.

“Bloodsong is not a fair mount, Daryna,” the chief said, frowning. “He is our fastest and finest horse, but he has never been tamed. There is a demon in him.” He would have gone on, but Toryn took the reins from Daryna. The horse looked more than half-wild but it made Toryn think of Alyn. She would turn grass green with envy at the sight of this beast.

He climbed quickly into the saddle. Before the horse could get his bearings and dump Toryn into the dirt, Toryn howled a Redolian war cry and dug his heels into the beast’s sides.

The horse jumped violently and bolted. Through the camp they thundered and tribesmen scattered from their path. Several of them galloped after him in pursuit, thinking he needed help. Toryn, far from trying to stop the stallion, urged him to greater speed. The plains that he loved for their openness became even more treasured. It seemed as if he could race over the sea of grass forever.

Bloodsong seemed to feel his joy and tore along faster, trying to match the wind. Toryn laughed aloud, his face near the chestnut mane as he leaned down. Bloodsong’s mane slapped against his cheeks. He felt like a part of the horse. The pounding hooves drummed a rapid staccato on the earth, the hard muscles stretched and contracted powerfully, and the rushing wind tore the moisture from his eyes.

Finally, Bloodsong began to slow and Toryn reined him in. He patted the sweat-slick neck and talked warmly to the animal as it pranced and champed the bit, tired but still excited, willing to break into a run again if Toryn desired it. Several tribesmen and women cantered up and Toryn grinned at the first one to arrive, a saucy-looking, tawny-haired girl on a bay mare.

“A fine horse,” he said and she smiled in return.

“You have ridden before,” she said slyly.

Toryn shrugged. “Once or twice,” he admitted. The others, whether unhappy or glad to see him unhurt, rode back with him at a leisurely walk. By the time they returned, all signs of the camp, save the flattened grass, were gone. Garyn and Poodik, with Daryna, awaited him on the bank of the Thalar.

Garyn let out a sigh of relief to see him and Daryna asked smugly, “Were you thrown?”

The tawny-haired girl came to Toryn’s defense with a laugh. “You jest? This one rides like a Horseking!”

Daryna reacted as if struck. She threw a dark glare at Toryn, turned the dun horse, and splashed across the river.

“The others have gone ahead. The chief bade us follow if….” Garyn paused and flushed. “I mean when you returned.”

“I see everyone had confidence in my riding ability,” Toryn said sardonically. Garyn grinned and they rode after Daryna. Poodik refused to go near the horses and had almost bolted back to the Voor when it was suggested that he ride one. He apparently had an almost superstitious horror of horses, so when he accompanied them it was on foot and twenty feet from the nearest steed. He skirted all piles of horse droppings as if they were coiled snakes, which Toryn thought quite odd. Poodik was filthy and his swim across the Thalar had done little to change that.

“I wonder why he doesn’t like horses,” Toryn commented to Garyn. Far in the distance, they could see the cloud of dust from the herd of horses they trailed.

“All the Voor feel that way, to some degree,” Garyn replied. “Had you not noticed?”

Toryn had been so preoccupied with escape and grief over Brydon’s death that he had not noticed much of anything about the Voor. Thinking back, he realized it was true. The Voor had all stayed far away from Sellaris, Garyn and Lavan whenever they had been mounted.

“Why is that?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Garyn replied. “I think it has something to do with the War of the South. The final battle against the legions of Shaitan was fought on the flatlands of Bodor, and Kerrick’s best weapon—aside from the Gauntlet—was a legion of Tar-Tanian warriors mounted on stolen Akarskan horses. The Voor never lost their fear of that day and they do not care for open spaces, either.”

Toryn looked at Poodik, who warily looked from one horse to another and muttered.

“The plains do not seem to bother him,” he observed.

“Younger generation?” Garyn questioned. “He doesn’t worship Shaitan, either.”

“If they are so afraid of what defeated them in the war, why do they not fear the Gauntlet?” Toryn asked with a gesture at the cask carrying the object.

Garyn snorted. “That is their greatest terror. They had no idea they were transporting it. Reed is far from stupid.”

Toryn was shocked. “How could they not know?”

“When the Dark Master sends for something, the Dark Master gets it. It is not in the interest of the Voor to question what it is, or indeed, even care. They must simply obey. They were told to pick up the black box from Reed and bring it.”

Toryn could hardly comprehend being so... obedient. Then again, Brydon had been that way with his king. The king who had sent him on the stupid quest that had gotten him killed. He felt a lance of bitter pain. He had a sudden desire to return the Gauntlet to Falara himself and then bring the whole country down with it.

Garyn called him out of his vengeful reverie.

“Are you all right?” he asked in a concerned voice. “You looked... enraged.”

Toryn forced a smile, shaking off the vision. “Just thinking.”

“Not with me in mind, I hope,” Garyn put in. Toryn shook his head. He had actually come to like the brown-haired man in the past couple of weeks, and Garyn had not really done anything wrong except to follow that she-devil Sellaris around. He could not be held accountable for unrequited love.

“What will you do when we get back to Silver?” Toryn asked to take his mind off of Brydon, who loomed in his memory whenever he thought of Sellaris. Garyn shrugged.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go back to Bodor and do what I was born to do. I don’t know, though. I seem to have acquired a wanderlust. I am not sure I could settle down and become a farmer anymore. Perhaps I will go to G’Neel Across the Sea. I have never been there and I hear it is a largely unexplored land. Toryn nodded.

“After I find Alyn, maybe I’ll join you. There is no hurry for me to get back to Redol. My brother is clan-chief and he probably thinks I am dead.” Actually, Toryn had no intention of going to G’Neel Across the Sea. He planned to rescue Alyn and then go to Ven-Kerrick to kill Reed very slowly.

The tawny-haired girl cantered up to them then and smiled at Toryn.

“We will be catching up to the others, soon,” she said. “Will you be staying with us for a while?” Her eyes were cool amber and Toryn noticed, not for the first time, that she was quite pretty.

“That is for the chief to decide,” Toryn admitted. “What is your name?”

“Varii.” She smiled. “And your names are Toryn and Garyn.”

“Word spreads fast,” Toryn said, enchanted with her slight accent.

“It’s a small tribe.” Varii shrugged. “I think Daryna likes you.” Warning bells shot off in Toryn’s head.

“What makes you say that?”

“Because she keeps looking back here and glaring at me.”

“I think she is glaring at me,” Toryn corrected.

“Watch. She will come over here. She can’t stand not knowing what I’m telling you,” Varii said. She giggled loudly and reached out to touch a hand upon Toryn’s arm. Bloodsong pranced at the nearness of the mare. Toryn knew how he felt.

“You see?” Varii laughed. “Here she comes! She will send me off somewhere, wait and see.”

Daryna rode back to them with a black look on her face. “Varii,” she snapped when she neared, “Ride ahead and see if the others have reached the cattle, yet.” Varii threw a sparkling, mirthful glance at Toryn and obediently cantered away. Daryna turned her mount to ride next to Garyn. Toryn said, “I think I will go with Varii.” He did not feel like getting involved with a tricky wench like Daryna. He touched heels to Bloodsong, who eagerly bounded off after the bay mare.

The remainder of the tribe followed the large herd at a distance far enough to be free of dust. Everyone Toryn saw was mounted, including small children who rode upon older, gentle mounts. Even babies rode, slung upon their mother’s backs in leather packs.

Toryn rode up to Chief Haaryd, who rode a dark gold palomino draped in turquoise cloth. Kalyn rode next to him.

“Where do you travel?” Toryn asked.

“We go to trade for cattle,” Haaryd said.

“You already have cattle.”

“Indeed we do, but one can never have too many cattle. We get fine bulls and cows from the tribe of Sorii.”

“Doesn’t the Sorii tribe feel the same way about cattle?”

Haaryd chuckled. “The Sorii are a different breed of Thalarii. They would trade their last meal for a fast horse. Racing is in their blood. They spend most of their time breeding and perfecting their racing horses. They tend cattle only as a means of obtaining more horses. Needless to say, both the cattle and the horses of Sorii tribe are very fine.”

“If they are the finest in Thalarii, why do they trade for more?” Haaryd gave him a shrewd look.

“I did not say they were the finest. No matter how fine the steed, every Sorii still hungers for that perfect steed, the one that can race the wind and win, the horse whose hooves never touch the ground when he runs, the mount that can run for a week and not tire.” Haaryd’s eyes were far away and glowing.

“You sound as if you wouldn’t mind finding this horse, yourself.”

“You cannot be Thalarii without wishing to find Avani-tor Shahar,” he admitted. Kalyn laughed and agreed.

“This fantasy horse even has a name?” Toryn burst out.

“No fantasy,” Haaryd said steadily, in a reprimanding tone. “You are from Redol, yet you do not know of Thalar, for whom this country is named? His name should be sung aloud and often in Redol, for it is where Thalar was born.” Toryn shook his head, not mentioning that he had never even heard of the country before stumbling upon it. He was stunned to find that a fellow Redolian had not only traveled so far south, but had apparently founded an entire nation.

“It is a long story for a cold night, or for a feast. Perhaps I will tell it tonight at the Sorii fire. Look, we are near to the Sorii.” He gestured to where the tops of some scrubby trees poked into the air. As he did so, many men on horses bolted over the rise like lightning, screaming wild cries at the top of their lungs. Toryn’s own war cry leaped to his lips instinctively as his hand reached for his sword, but he choked it back when he noticed that Haaryd reacted to the warriors with only a slight smile.

“Sorii?” Toryn questioned. Haaryd nodded as the horsemen skewed to a halt in front of them. Toryn noted with no surprise that Daryna was among them.

“Greetings, Haaryd-chieftain from Sorii-chieftain,” the leading warrior spoke. He was about Toryn’s age with thick black hair and a fey cast to his face. His eyes were a brilliant blue. “Have you horses?”

“Greetings, Mikyl,” Haaryd smiled. “If you have spoken to Daryna, you should know everything about the tribe and the herd from the past four months.” Daryna tossed her black hair at the slight and Mikyl laughed.

“That is so.” He looked at Toryn and Garyn and his eyes took in their grey clothing and dropped to their swords. Toryn had noticed that few of the Thalarii wore swords, seeming to prefer bows, spears, and daggers.

Haaryd volunteered no information to Mikyl’s questioning glance, so the youth shrugged. His gaze passed from them to Kalyn, who still rode next to Haaryd, and his ice-blue eyes hardened. Kalyn’s face could have been chiseled in stone for all the expression he showed, but his eyes were as cool as Mikyl’s. Toryn had seen two enemy lions look at each other with more friendliness before leaping upon each other to rend and kill. Mikyl looked away first, contemptuously.

“Let us get to the feast!” he shouted, “and then to the racing!”

The rest of the Sorii shouted with him, joined by several of the Haaryd tribe, and then they all turned and galloped away. Daryna, obviously miffed, stayed beside her father rather than ride off with Mikyl.

“You have just seen the youngest in the line of Thalar and his wife, Ilyna. Mikyl is the son of Sorii, the only child, and sole heir to the mighty legend that precedes him,” Haaryd divulged. Toryn thought that explained Daryna’s interest and wondered at the note of disapproval he caught in Haaryd’s voice. Was it merely that he was protective of his daughter, or was there something in particular that the chief did not like about Mikyl?

“Does he have no cousins or uncles?” he asked. Haaryd shook his head.

“Thalar’s line has been an unbroken chain of single-son families. Sorii and Mikyl are the only two left and, no doubt, Mikyl will have a single son, if he ever takes a mate.”

Thalar had been Redolian, which meant the blood of Redol flowed in Mikyl’s veins. He could even be distantly related to Toryn, who wrinkled his nose in distaste at the idea. They rode on into the camp of the Sorii and Kalyn said nothing.