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Milward Chronicles, Book 2: Discovery by Robert Lee Beers (Fantasy)

Milward Chronicles, Book 2: Discovery by Robert Lee Beers (Fantasy)
 
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In the second book of the Chronicles, the twins have been separated by an unnecessary war. Charity believes her brother slain and has begun to seek her own way. Adam, torn by grief, seeks out the wizard Milward. Together, the two begin their search...and Adam his apprenticeship.

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Milward Chronicles, Book 2: Discovery by Robert Lee Beers (Fantasy)
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Sample Chapter

Prologue

Over a thousand years have passed since the last great Emperor, Labad wrote his prophecy. Some say he used a dagger dipped in his own blood. A peculiar writing instrument at the least, but if one examines the characters in the prophecy closely, their color and line could have come from just such an origin. The Prophecy of Labad has been a point of discussion among clerics, scribes and scholars through the centuries. Even among the learned, there are those who say it is only legend, or that the dying King merely penned visions caused by the last throes of garloc poisoning. Yet the prophecy is coming to pass and the promised ones written of in its few terse passages are now among us.

I am Baldric, the Librarian of Grisham, the greatest city-state on the northern sea. I have chosen to archive these tales so that you, the reader, may share in the wonder of this epic tale.

These are the last of the King's lineage. Twin brother and sister imbued with the sympathetic magik of Labad himself, and armed with his weapons. Their names, Adam and Charity, have already become subjects of legend in their own right, he with his sword, and she with her bow. Many of my colleagues may choose to dwell upon that part of the legend alone, but there are others who have been placed into service to aid their endeavor, for the prophecy itself bore powerful magik. I list them here: Morgan, who molded Charity into a warrior of supreme skill, Milward, the last of the wizards of old, who sheltered them while they were newly come into their task. Hersh of Dunwattle, who took them under his wing and taught them skills of market, Flynn and Neely, one-time thieves now stalwart companions of the lady Charity. This is not to say the path was trouble free. The perils of their journey were many and varied. Within the caverns of the dwarfs, they faced the dread fire wyrm, beyond the dwarf's caverns; they faced trolls, villainous giants, bigotry and war. Through all of these adventures, they persevered and survived, though often by the sheer skin of their teeth. A terrible cliché, I vow, but worthy of the use. A petty war, begun by the machinations of the Sorcerer Gilgafed tore them apart as he had planned and eventually placed the lady Charity into the terrible hands of Lord Cloutier, the vile Earl of Berggren; her tribulation yet worsened by the belief that her brother lay murdered by the soldiers of Avern. Flynn and Neely, her stalwart companions, would prove their worth even during the long two years she would spend as a prisoner within the Earl's castle.

Despairing of finding his sister, Adam journeyed back to where he and Charity stayed with the wizard Milward. Together they would set out on a journey to find Charity and to foster Adam's rapidly developing powers, which the wizard's call shaping. On that journey, the young man learned much about whom and what he was, and of the awesome power he would wield.


Chapter One

Vedder, Priest and spiritual conscience of the village of Bantering, clicked his tongue as he urged on the twin mules pulling his cart. Avern would be just over the next rise. He congratulated himself on thinking of the cart. He had almost forgotten about the downs between the forest and the lakeside city. His mind traveled ahead of the cart as he thought about his older brother, Rolston. He would be so proud of his brother's accomplishments, if it were not for the nature of them. Rolston, according to his letters, had built a successful business collecting night soil, aging it, and then reselling it as fertilizer to the farmers in the dairy lands south of Avern.

Bardoc's ways are mysterious, indeed, he thought. Who would ever think the stuff in the bottom of cesspits could be turned into gold?

Avern came into view; its log walls starkly brown against the verdant green of the downs. Firth Lake gleamed as a brilliant blue to the north of the city. The mule team merged into the traffic traveling along the main north-south road. Vedder noticed with distaste the number of elf breeds and dwarves mixed into the flow. He shook his head at the blatant lack of morality of this city, allowing such...creatures to move about freely was against the very will of Bardoc. Vedder twitched the reins against the mule team's backs, trying for more speed out of the plodding beasts.

There was a queue at the city gate. Because of the war with Spu a couple of years ago, the vigilance of the cities had been raised. Anyone entering, or leaving their confines was questioned. In some cases a search would be performed. In a very few cases they would find something, hence the atmosphere between Avern and its neighbors remained tense.

Vedder found no fault with the security or the searches. He had nothing to hide, and would welcome the opportunity to prove his worthiness. The only thing that bothered him was seeing some of the lesser races being treated as though they were as good as he.

"No, Gunther, I'm tellin' ya. It were a dragon. I saw it flyin' past th' clouds, plain as th' nose on me face. I swear it, on Bardoc's bristlin' beard."

"I don't give a skrud 'bout Bardoc's beard, an' I ain't seen nuthin' plainer'n yer nose, Dolbutt. There ain't no sech thing as dragons; I ain't never seen one. 'Splain that, iffn yer will."

The heavily country accented conversation caught Vedder's ear. Did he hear the word dragons mixed within that slop the two bumpkins called speech? He pulled on the reins, slowing the mules, and cocked his ear towards the two who were speaking.

"Yer ain't seen no dragons, 'cause yer ain't never been further from yourn farm than yer fields, an' yer knows that good'n well, Gunther. Tell me iffn it ain't so."

"Yer got's me there an' that's a fack. But skrud me iffn I'm gonna believe in no dragon. Whatta yer wants me ta do, stay awake all night? Naw Dolbutt, they ain'ts none, 'cause I says they ain'ts none."

"Yer a close-minded man, Gunther. They is dragons. I saw 'em as I was passin' through th' mountains above th' Bastard River. Iffn yer had th' gumption to go there, yer'd see 'em too."

"Oh, no, Dolbutt. Yer ain't gettin' me with that'un. Yer knows I got crops comin' in. Naw. You go watch yer bleedin' dragons, an' I'll tend to me crops. Good day to ya, Dolbutt, I'm gettin' back to me missus, an' me nice farm where there ain't no skruddin' dragons."

Vedder missed Dolbutt's farewell to Gunther due to an argument that broke out between an elderly couple and one of the gate guards over the contents of the woman's parcel.

He was considering the subject matter of Gunther and Dolbutt's talk when another voice broke in on his thoughts.

"Oy! Priest, you awake up there?" The guard tapped the seat of the cart with the tip of his spear.

Vedder looked down his nose at the guard standing to the right of his cart. "Of course I'm awake. My mind was elsewhere. Is there something you need of me?"

The guard peered into the cart's bed. Vedder was traveling light. The empty bed held nothing but the dust of travel. "You got anything to declare?"

If there was one thing Vedder understood above all others, it was the bureaucratic mind. Here, he was on familiar ground. He reached under the cart's seat and pulled out a wickerwork basket. "All I have with me, guard sergeant, is my lunch. You're welcome to inspect it, if you wish."

"Might as well," the sergeant sighed, "best to keep with the rules." He looked at the priest with a humorous glint in his eye. "You never know, you could be smuggling Spuian mercenaries in there."

Vedder smiled back even as he shivered inwardly at the crassness of the guard sergeant's joke, and opened the basket. "As you can see, sergeant, there are no mercenaries hidden within my lunch."

"Very good, priest, you can go now. Welcome to Avern." The guard waved him along, already turning his attention to the next one in line.

Inside Avern's gates, Vedder turned the cart a hard right to follow the line of the city wall. Rolston's home and office occupied one of the homogenous wood frame buildings along the backside of a street appropriately named Skunkwood lane.

Vedder's brother met the cart as it pulled up in front of his door. One of his employees, a grizzled oldster with a permanent tremor, took care of the team as the priest stepped to the ground.

"Brother, good to see you after all these years. You're looking prosperous and well." Rolston hopped down off his porch and held out his arms to greet his younger sibling.

"Brother," Vedder greeted Rolston in kind, "how does one go about killing a dragon?"

***

Charity stretched her arms out and opened her mouth in a wide yawn. The cat, nestled snugly in her lap, copied her mistress' action.

She, Flynn and Neely, were rafting in the upper reaches of the Ort River where the water flowed wide and slow. Their horses, partially due to the stability of the raft and its slow drift in the river's current, had settled enough that the companions no longer felt compelled to watch their every living moment onboard.

She was content to just lie back against the packs and enjoy the warm fall sunshine. Flynn, on the other hand, thought this was a perfect time to try to infect Neely with the same love of fishing he had.

The big man was sitting on the edge of the raft across from the horses with his bare feet dangling into the river. One of the willow poles he had made rested in his hands and the line trailed off behind them in the water.

He reached up with a hand and scratched his cheek. The scritch, scritch sounded loud in the stillness of the morning. "Come on, Neely. Give it a try; you may like it, iffn you gives it a chance."

"I ain't fishin'. You know why." Neely sat with his back against the other side of the packs Charity used as a rest.

Flynn shrugged and turned his attention back to his pole. "Well, iffin you change your mind..."

Neely's derisive snort expressed the chances of that being very, very small.

"Hey! Hey! Hey! I got one!" Flynn surged to his feet with his willow pole bent nearly double.

In spite of his intentions to the contrary, Neely got excited over Flynn's catch. He rose from his spot against the packs and joined Flynn at his side. "You got a big'un there, Flynn."

The big man hauled back on the pole as he fought to keep the thrashing fish on his line. "Sure do. Look at that! You see the flash of pink on its side? That's a salmon, that is. Even you'd like a fresh salmon steak, Neely, even you."

"Don't bet on it, Flynn." Neely muttered, and then, "Ease off there. Don't pull so hard, you'll lose 'im."

Flynn looked over at Charity and smiled. Then he turned his attention back to the salmon. "I got 'im, Neely. Ohhh, he's a strong'un, he is."

Neely edged closer to Flynn, his eyes glued to the king-sized fish on the end of the line. "Ok, give 'im a little slack now. Good, good. All right, draw 'im in, Flynn, draw 'im in."

"You wanna take over for me, Neely?" Flynn asked, with a half smile.

Neely shook his head, but his eyes stayed on the fish.

Flynn put the pole in his friend's hands. "You take over for me, Neely. Me arms was gettin' a mite tired, an' we don't wanna lose th' prize now, do we?"

Neely grabbed a hold of the pole, "Oh skrud, give me th' bleedin' thing. Come 'ere, me pretty. I got you now."

He worked the willow pole back and forth, bringing the fighting salmon in toward the raft, and then allowing it spare room to run. After a time, the struggles of the fish slowed as it began to tire.

Flynn leaned back against the packs and crossed his arms over his paunch. "You doin' ok, Neely? Need any help?"

"No. No, I've got it."

Charity had watched Flynn's seduction of Neely into the world of fishing, noticing the fanatical gleam in Neely's eyes when he answered Flynn's inquiry. She then leaned over until her chin rested on Flynn's shoulder blade. "You beast, you baited him into it, didn't you?"

Flynn chuckled. "I did, didn't I. Seems to be enjoyin' himself though."

"I got 'im," Neely called out. "Look at 'im. Isn't he a beauty?"

He held up the exhausted salmon by its tail. The hooked mouth opened and closed as it tried to breathe out of the water.

Charity looked at the salmon, and then at Neely. The sense of triumph he was feeling radiated out of his expression. "He sure is, but I thought you said you didn't want anything to do with fish or fishing?"

Flynn chuckled deeply in his chest, as Neely, abashed, blushed crimson. "Awww, now don't go teasin' 'im, Miss Charity. Takes a big man to admit it when he's been wrong. I'd say Neely, here, just done a heap of admittin'."

Using one of the iron pots in his pack to hold the fire and another as the grill, Flynn did the cooking as the raft floated along in the lazy current. Later, after Flynn's masterful preparation, Neely had to also admit he liked salmon steak.

Charity watched the moon rise in the east as Neely maneuvered the raft into a still eddy against the shore. Thick green grasses flowed from the shoreline into the black shadow of the mountain range to the west.

"Looks like a good spot to pasture the horses, as well as camp for the night. Whadda you think?" Neely pushed the pole he held into the soft mud of the river bottom to help keep the raft steady until it could be staked and tied fast.

Flynn led the horses from the raft to the shore.

Charity looked up from stroking the cat curled upon her lap. "Looks good to me, how about you?" She looked down at the cat who returned Charity's gaze and burped salmon-flavored breath through an open-mouthed purr.

Flynn rubbed his hands as he looked around the proposed campsite. "Aye looks mighty fine." He nodded at Charity as she let the cat jump onto the shore ahead of her. "You still thinkin' Ort's a good spot?"

She replied, "Yes. It's the largest city there is. Milward told Adam and I about it once. There should be a lot of opportunity for someone with my skills."

Neely snorted, "Skills! More like magik iffn you ask me. I tell you, Charity. The way you shoot that bow of yourn is flat out unnatcheral an'," he held up a hand, "I'm mighty glad to be on this side of your shootin an' that's a fact."

Flynn laughed, "Good'un Neely. You slipped outta that slicker'n a greased slug."

Neely smiled sheepishly, "Sorry 'bout me mouth, Charity. You figger your brother'd like Ort?"

She nodded. "Yes, I think he would have," her voice faltered, "if that Avern soldier hadn't murdered him."

Flynn looked at Neely and shook his head.

***

"You really are serious, aren't you?" Rolston looked across the table at his brother, the priest. "About hunting and killing dragons, I mean."

Vedder sipped from his mug of cider and wrinkled his brow in thought. "Absolutely, it is the will of Bardoc. Evil must be driven from our land. Surely you remember the church teachings?"

Rolston lifted his mug of stout, "Most of them. I don't recall one of them mentioning dragons though, for either good or ill."

Vedder smirked in that superior way Rolston had learned to overlook while they were growing up. "I shouldn't be surprised that you hadn't. One needs to be anointed by Bardoc's spirit before one can delve into the deeper mysteries of his word. Dragons are evil because of the form they take. They take on the appearance of evil because they are evil. It's simple as that."

"Circular logic," Rolston downed a healthy portion of stout.

"Only to those unenlightened," Vedder's smirk reappeared as he sipped more of his tisane. "Really, Rolston, it's better if you leave the theological questions to those of us best suited to answer them."

Rolston put his mug down and wiped his lips with the back of his sleeve, ignoring his younger brother's glare at the lack of manners. "Yes, well, I suppose that's the way religious matters are handled now-a-days. You know me; I've always been more interested in things a tad closer to the ground."

Vedder laughed out loud, causing heads to turn in the meeting room, "Seems to me you've lowered your point of view somewhat since then."

Rolston laughed with him. "What can I say? My life is offal." He raised his mug and drank, ignoring his brother's wince at the horrible pun.

After he finished drinking, he set the empty mug back onto the table and looked at his younger brother quizzically, "You really serious about this dragon business, then?"

"Of course I am." The food arrived just then as Vedder finished his drink. "Another, please," he asked, holding the mug to indicate what he wanted.

Lunch was a couple of thick chops cooked in pastry; fried potatoes sprinkled with parsley and steamed greens garnished with diced red onions. Dark brown crusty bread with slices of creamy yellow cheese finished the serving.

A comely serving girl brought Vedder his refill of cider. As she poured, she smiled at Rolston. "Why, hello, Rol, more stout for you?"

He looked up at the girl. She had thick curly red hair that fell below her shoulder blades, large brown eyes with flecks of gold in a heart shaped face, white even teeth and a bosom guaranteed to provide adventure.

"Why, thank you, Elssyn. That'd be nice." Rolston handed her his mug.

Vedder looked up from his plate and saw his brother watching the waitress work her way back to the bar. "You like that type?"

Rolston turned back to face his brother and picked up a crust of bread. "What do you mean that type?"

"You know," Vedder sneered. "Curvy, busty...wiggly." He made the last word sound dirty. "Women of that type only lead the unwary down the path of destruction."

"Oh, I don't know, could be a fun trip."

"Rolston!"

He chuckled and held up a hand. "Peace, brother. So, you're serious about dragons being evil and it being your duty to go out, hunt them down and kill them."

Vedder sampled some of his chop. It was delicious. "I am. I feel it's my calling."

"All right," Rolston cut into his chop and added a bit of potato to the morsel. "I know someone who might be able to help you in that."

After Vedder and Rolston finished their meal, Rolston led his brother to the center of town where the Earl's mansion dominated the manicured landscape.

Lord Souter, the Earl of Avern was, to Vedder's judgmental eye, grossly overweight, slovenly mannered, and...he stank. Why is it? he thought to himself, That fat people cannot control their body odor?

"So," The Earl leaned back in his ornately carved chair as it creaked in protest. "Rolston has a priest for a brother."

Rolston stood, leaning against a back wall of the Earl's private chamber while Vedder sat. "Yes, and I love him, regardless."

Souter opened his mouth in a broad, fruity laugh. "Bwaahahahahaha, Rolston! You are a rascal. I think that's why I like you so much."

Vedder's smile hid his revulsion, "Eh, heh, yes, my Lord. My brother has always been the droll one of the family."

The Earl wiped tears away from his eyes with a linen cloth. "Well, at least one of the family is worth having around. He says you have a quest you need some help in fulfilling. What is it?"

Vedder told him. Near the end of the tale, the fires of fanaticism caught and the tale completed with the tone of a sermon. Vedder, in the excitement of his obsession, rose and paced about the room as he spoke.

"Hmmm...yes. Dragons, you say? Um Hmmm..." Lord Souter steepled his hands and looked at Vedder over them. "Rolston, please help yourself to a brandy and get one for your brother as... no? Oh yes, you're a priest, aren't you? Dragons...let me think on this for a moment."

Rolston stepped over to the Earl's well-stocked sideboard and selected a black bottle with a soft satin sheen to its finish. He held it up to the light. "Mossett brown, excellent year too, you're doing very well with your properties, Lord Souter."

The Earl acknowledged Rolston's praise with a limp wave of his hand.

Rolston walked across the room and whispered in Vedder's ear. "He doesn't believe in dragons, or anything else for that matter, but he does owe me a favor or two. You'll get your help."

The priest nodded, keeping his gaze upon the Earl.

Souter lifted a finger while keeping the others steepled. "Pour me a goblet of that lovely elixir, will you, Rolston? Ah, good man...as to you, my dear priest. Thank you, Rolston." He sipped noisily from the crystal goblet. "As I was saying, as for you...priest, your brother is right. I don't believe in dragons." He began to chuckle from deep in his belly. "Nor in anything else," he added. "Oh, don't look so surprised, Rolston. You know I have excellent hearing."

He sipped again, "Ahhhh, yes, excellent vintage, indeed.

"Now as to your problem with these so-called dragons."

"So-called?" Vedder raised his voice in protest.

"Lower your hackles brother. Let him finish," Rolston admonished his younger sibling.

Souter raised his goblet in salute. "Thank you, Rolston, but there is no need for your involvement. What would a religious man be without strong beliefs?" He sipped and then opened his eyes wide. "Why, he'd be me!" The Earl let loose with another of his fruity laughs.

When the laughs settled into chuckles, and the chuckles into silence, he looked back at Vedder and pointed a finger at him. "Now, as I was saying, these so-called dragons of yours seem to be a simple problem to solve. I will loan you one of the companies of my city guard for a month. Take them, find your dragons, kill the dragons, and come back. Seems simple, to me, at least."

"Solves one of your problems too, my Lord Earl," Rolston said, as he finished his brandy.

"Oh?" Souter said with raised eyebrows. "And what would that be?"

"You pay off one of those weighty favors you owe me," Rolston smiled.

Souter smiled back and raised his goblet in another salute.

***

Neely, a baited hook drifting at the end of his line, hummed along with the choral voices of the crickets and frogs singing to their prospective mates under cover of the night sky. He just enjoyed the music. Charity and Flynn were sleeping along with the horses. The cat sat next to Neely, watching the fishing line for potential action.

"Gonna get us a big'un. Night's when they bites th' best," he whispered to the cat as he gently bobbed the line up and down, simulating the action of a bug swimming.

The cat shifted on her feet and watched the action of the line. Then, for no apparent reason, she looked in the direction the raft was floating and meowed. She meowed again and walked to the front of the raft, her tail swishing back and forth in agitation.

"Whatcho got there girl?" Neely abandoned his pole and stepped around the horses to the place where the cat paced back and forth. She was becoming more and more anxious as the minutes passed. And then...he heard it.

"Oh, Deity. Oh, skrud. We're in for it now." A faint roaring sound came to Neely's ears. Rapids, possibly deep ones with waterfalls mixed in. They were too far off to see by the moonlight, which was small comfort to him.

He shook Charity and Flynn awake. "C'mon, c'mon. Up, you gotta get up. Now!"

"Huh? Wuzzat?"

"Neely! What's wrong?" Flynn and Charity surged to their feet still groggy.

"Rapids!"

The single word, spoken harshly, drove the rest of the sleep from them. The cat meowed loudly at Charity, as if insisting that she do something about this. The horses wuffed, tossing their heads and stamping, they felt it too.

"Great Bardoc preserve us all. Look at that!" Flynn pointed downstream ahead of the raft. Moonlight limned white off of a boil of froth, scant yards ahead of where they lay.

"Grab a pole, Flynn. Charity, untie the horses. Move, girl!" Neely pulled one of the steering poles out of its holder and crouched at the ready.

"Untie the horses? But...they could drown." Charity looked at Neely, unsure of what she heard.

Neely felt he had no time to argue. "Horses swim better'n people, an' they can't tip the raft over iffn they're not tied to it. Better for them, an' us. You ready, Flynn?" He called out, as Charity leapt to get the horses' tethers loosed.

"Don't wanna be, but I am." Flynn's voice came from the other side of the raft to the right of the horses.

Neely glanced at Charity, "Make sure those packs are secure, Charity. They'll go flyin' iffn they ain't tied down."

"Here it comes." Flynn yelled out.

The horses' screams mixed in with those of Charity and the cat as the front of the raft fell out from underneath them. Neely just barely kept his feet, but Flynn met the raft with his backside as it slammed back into the Ort below the short falls.

Charity clung to the lashings that held the packs to the raft. The cat yowled in banshee voice, all twenty of her claws dug deeply into the canvas of the packs.

Wilbut, Neely's mount, slipped to his fetlocks and would have tumbled off the heaving floor of the raft if Flynn's draft horse had not been between him and the edge. Charity's mare spread her legs for additional support and voiced her displeasure at the top of her lungs.

Flynn scrambled back to his feet, grabbing his pole just as it was bouncing into the foam of the rapids.

The volume of sound was tremendous. They had to scream to be understood.

"Just try to keep us off th' rocks," Neely yelled out, as he and Flynn manned their poles on either side of the raft.

It hurtled down the river, lurching and jumping like a drunken toad. They were all drenched to the skin. The cat looked like she had been half-drowned. Flynn and Neely exerted themselves, using the poles to push the raft past the larger rocks. Grinding sounds came from underneath as the bottom framework scraped and bounced off the smaller ones below.

No one spoke; even the animals now kept silent as their once peaceful floating platform lurched, bounced and twisted its way through the maze of rapids. Spray constantly washed across its passengers and Flynn and Neely had to brace themselves as the floor of the raft grew slick from the water sweeping over it.

A large black boulder loomed up out of the shadows, splitting the river in twain. The roar of high falls came from the left side.

Charity cried out in terror. The horses screamed. The cat hissed.

Neely screamed to Flynn, "Push, man! Pole us to the right! If you love life, do it now!"

Charity clung to the packs, unable to do anything but wail her fear to the winds. The cat cried with her. The mare nuzzled the back of her hair in an attempt to comfort her.

"Harder, Flynn! She's not movin' enough!" Neely strained at his pole, striving to edge the raft into the right hand flow of the rapids.

Flynn did not answer, but bent all his massive strength into the task of saving their lives

The raft moved to the right, but Neely saw it was not enough. They were going over the falls unless something was done, and done now. He looked over at Flynn and at Charity, his smile bleak. "You keep an eye on her, Flynn. She's somethin' special." He stepped off the raft and into the water, with his right hand gripping the outermost log of the raft at the front.

"Neely!" Charity's scream tore the heart right out of him, but he could do nothing about that now.

His boots scraped and tore at the rocks lining the river bottom, but the extra leverage of his position allowed Neely to push the left front corner of the raft just enough so that it caught the right hand current. He could feel the left current pulling him, and he reached out desperately for the pole Flynn held out to him.

"C'mon, Neely, grab it!" Flynn called out over the roar of the falls.

"I ca-" The rest of Neely's words vanished in a white mist of noise and water as the raft tipped into the right hand channel and away from the sure death of the falls.

***

Vedder turned in the saddle to watch the double line of uniformed men marching behind him. I knew this day would come, he thought to himself, "a man of my quality can remain in obscurity only so long.

The Earl of Avern, Lord Souter, was a man of his word, even if he was an unrepentant slob. The twenty guardsmen behind him were proof of that. They were a quiet bunch, which suited him just as well. He needed strong arms and steady hands, not conversationalists.

They were into their second day of the march, moving south along the western slopes of the spine, and Vedder could not have been more content. Bardoc would be smiling upon him now, and soon he would send his god the gift of the dragons' destruction.

***

Charity woke to a rough tongue rasping the tip of her nose, and a claw-tipped paw tapping at her eyelid. She groaned and rolled halfway over, throwing an arm across her face to block out the sun. Then she remembered and bolted upright. She could hear the faint roar of the falls in the distance up river. They must have clung to bits of the raft in spite of all that the rapids threw at them. She thought of the horses, the poor horses.

"Neely!" She turned around and around searching for her companions. "Flynn!"

There was no answer. She heard a sound to her right, up the bank from the river. She spun, crouched and ready to do battle. The mare whinnied softly at her and tossed her head, sending the long hair of her mane flying. Charity ran to her horse and threw both arms around the mare's neck "You're alive. You're alive. Oh, I'm so glad." She hugged harder and the mare nuzzled Charity in return.

"Let's go see if we can find Flynn and Neely, girl." Charity took hold of the mane and swung herself onto the mare's back. The horse tossed her head once more and then moved off at an easy trot toward the beach and the bend in the river beyond the tall grasses.

The cat ran ahead of the horse, leaping from rock to log amongst the debris scattered along the river's edge.

Charity saw one of the packs and dismounted. The oiled canvas was ripped in a few places, but otherwise it was in serviceable condition. The glint of tin showed through one of the rents. "Flynn's pots and pans." She stood and craned her neck, looking for a sign of the big man.

The cat meowed, calling Charity's attention to where she stood atop a large pile of the alder logs that used to be the base of the raft. Some of them showed where the dowels holding the logs together had snapped.

"Flynn! Neely!" Still no answer.

The cat meowed again. Charity tried skirting the pile but the bank to the left of it was too steep and finished in a grassy ledge nearly twice a man's height above her. To the right was the river, so she remounted the mare and they waded through the shallow waters around the debris. More of the packs appeared on the other side. A couple of them, further down the beach appeared to be totally intact.

A murmur of sound drew Charity's attention to a series of sandy mounds topped with grasses like dark green tufts of spiky hair. She nudged the mare with her heels and they worked their way across the sand to the mounds. The sound became clearer and coalesced into soft, bubbly snores. She recognized the sound.

"Flynn!" She was off the horse in an instant and at the big man's side. He groaned and grumbled as she tried to wake him. "Urrglmmff, lemme sleep. C'mon!"

"Flynn! Up! It's me, Charity! You've got to get up!"

He opened one eye and held a hand up to shield it from the sun. "Miss Charity, that you?"

"Of course it's me, you big oaf." She threw herself into his embrace. "I thought you were dead!"

He hugged her back, "Takes more'n a bit of rapids to kill an' ol' lug like me. Hey, don't cry, Miss Charity. We made it." He patted her back as she sobbed into his shoulder.

Charity cried out her relief for a while until she was able to control herself and pull away, allowing Flynn to stand.

He looked over the area where she had found him. Sandy hummocks topped with clumps of the spiky grass formed a wide crescent of broad beach along the river. A couple more of the packs lay on the beach just inside the line of the water.

"My bow! My quiver!" Charity's squeal whipped Flynn's head around. He saw Charity sprint up to one of the packs at the river's edge and stoop to collect her possessions. She waved the bow and quiver over her head as if they were hard won trophies. The quiver, miraculously, still held a couple of arrows.

Flynn pulled the other packs from the water's edge and went through them. "Most of th' stuff's still in pretty good shape, considerin'," he said. "Sure could use th' horses. Did you see th' others when you found that mare of yourn?"

"No." Charity shook her head. "And I didn't find her, she found me."

She walked back to the mare, looping the strap of the quiver over her neck and shoulder as she walked. "I'm going to go further downstream for a ways. Could you go up stream toward the falls? We've got to find out if Neely made it or not."

Flynn nodded. "Right you are, Miss Charity. I'm on it." He paused and looked back at the falls, shaking his head.

***

Flynn turned and began slowly picking his way along the riverbank, looking for any sign of the tracker's body. He shook his head as the word body crossed his mind and he worked at pushing it away. Neely was a tough old dog and a survivor, to boot. If anyone could have made it, he would have.

As he proceeded upriver, the material of the bank changed from sand and grasses to rocks and more of the woody debris. In one place an entire tree, complete with roots, lay lodged against large pink boulders. The fisherman part of Flynn mentioned to the rest of him that it looked like a good place to drop a hook.

The sound of the falls increased, as did the rockiness of the river's edge. He inched his way around a bend in the river where the bank was nearly vertical to the tree line and forced him to steady himself with his left hand along the top edge of the overhang. The falls came into view right after he rounded a house-sized rock slick with moss to a point a foot above the water line. The roar of the falling water had become deafening when he came across Neely's body. The tracker lay slumped face down half in and half out of the water.

"Neely, oh, you poor sod." Flynn looked over the rocks, trying to find a way to get to his friend's body. "Look what your kind act did to you, Charity an' me, we're safe enough, but what're we gonna do without you, old friend? What're we gonna do without you?" Fat tears ran down his cheeks as he bent over Neely's body.

"One thing you can do is stop blubberin' over me corpse an' get me outta this water. Both of me legs is broke," Neely's voice was slightly muffled because of the way he was lodged into the rocks, but it was his voice. Flynn had never heard anything more beautiful.

"Neely! You're alive. You ain't dead!"

"Of course, I'm alive, you big goob. It'll take more'n a bit of a fall onto some rocks to kill me. Now, get me outta here. I can't feel me legs," Neely yelled.

Flynn reached down and took Neely by the armpits. "Hold on, Neely. I'll getcha out. If your legs is broke, it could hurt some, though," He cautioned the tracker.

"Just do th' bloody thing, Flynn. I'm freezin' here."

"Ok, Neely. Here goes." Flynn bunched his shoulders and lifted.

"Aaaaggghhh!" Neely's scream cut across the background roar of the falls as his massive friend pulled him out of the water. He gritted his teeth as his broken legs bounced across the rocks while he was dragged up to the grassy area above the bank.

"There ya go, ol' bud. High 'n dry." Flynn lay Neely gently onto the ground with his back against the bole of a large pine. "I gottcha on the sunny side so's you'll warm up."

Neely managed a sickly grin, "Thanks. What about Charity?"

"Came through just fine. She's the one who found me."

"Figures," Neely waved his friend off. "Go get her. See if you can find the pack what has the doctorin' stuff in it. These legs o'mine need settin'."

Flynn took off down river the way he came. As he passed the area where Charity had awakened, he heard a whinny. He turned in the direction of the sound and saw Wilbut, Neely's old horse, and his mount, a beautifully marked Clydesdale, looking at him from a rise above the bank. It looked like a nice place to set up a camp with its flat ground, sheltering pines and a nice thick layer of soft leaves and grass.

He turned, jogged up the bank, and stood facing the two horses. "Boy, am I glad to see you two. And so will be Neely." He hugged the draft horse and rubbed Wilbut's soft nose. "Looks like we all made it."

Then he noticed the scrapes and cuts on the shoulders and flanks of the two horses. "Banged up some, I guess this'll need lookin' after. But we all made it, thank Bardoc. I gotta go get Miss Charity, but I'll be back. You boys stay here, ok?"

He bent and plucked some tufts of green grass that he held for the horses to take. "Yes sir, we'll all be back."

He met Charity where she had first found him. She was on horseback and her head was down. She looked up at his approach. "I went as far as I could, Flynn. I couldn't find him."

Flynn's smile was as broad as his stomach. "S'ok, Miss Charity. I did. He's banged up some, so are the horses, but we's all alive."

She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then threw herself off the mare and into his arms. "Alive? Oh, Flynn, we're all alive! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" She broke into fresh tears.

Flynn patted her back, not really sure what to do. When Charity subsided, he took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "I found us a good spot for a camp. Me horse an' Wilbut's there now. Neely's a bit banged up, both his legs is broke."

Charity gasped at that, and covered her mouth with her hands.

"No, no, no. Miss Charity. Neely's gonna be all right. We needs to find the pack with the fixin's for wounds an' such, so's we can set the breaks. He ain't bleedin' none. I made sure of that."

They found Neely where Flynn had left him with his back against the pine. The sun had moved some and a bit more of his lap was in shadow. Flynn noted his friend looked paler than he had before, and his face was drawn.

Charity wasted no time in digging into the medical supplies. She opened two small packages and mixed a few pinches of the white powders together. She reached out and felt Neely's pulse at his throat.

"Flynn?"

"Yes, miss Charity?"

"I need some clean water, as quick as you can get it."

The big man ran to the bank with a salvaged water bag in his hand. He clamored over the rocks and disappeared from Charity and her patient's sight.

"Gonna put this ol' dog outta his misery, eh?" Neely's voice was weak and tight with pain.

"Don't say that." Charity kept her eyes focused on Neely's. "You're going to be just fine. Flynn and I are going to make sure of that."

She hitched herself backwards, and took a gentle hold onto Neely's left boot. "Don't hold it in," she said. "Tell me if this hurts."

Neely nodded his head and Charity pulled on the boot, lightly, as if easing out a newborn babe.

"Eeeerrraarrrggghhh! Stop! For deity's sake. Stop!" Neely's back arched in agony, and he fell back against the pine, gasping.

"What happened? Why'd he scream?" Flynn ran back to where Neely lay, the full water bag swinging in his right hand.

Tears of empathy coursed down Charity's cheeks. "I checked his boots. They're bad breaks, all right. You got the water?"

Flynn held out the bag, "Right here."

"Glad to see...you...got something...right." Neely ground out the jest between gasps.

Charity held up a tin cup before Flynn. "Fill this about half way."

He did so, and she poured the powder mixture into the water, mixing it with the tip of her knife. She held it out to Neely when it was fully dissolved. "Drink it all, in spite of the taste."

Neely drank. His face twisted with the bitterness of the solution, but he drank it all, as Charity had insisted. When finished he threw the cup to the side. "Euuucchhh, but that's awful. Why can't potions ever taste good? What's this going to do to me anyway?"

Flynn retrieved the cup and put it back into the open pack. "Bet it's for the pain, ain't it?"

Charity nodded, "That and something else."

Flynn looked supremely pleased with himself. "Toldja." And then his expression changed to one of puzzlement. "What else?"

Neely stifled a huge yawn, "Yeah, what else?"

Charity looked at him with a knowing smile. "How's the pain?"

Another yawn split Neely's face, "Aaaaoouu, eeaaaooww. Sorry 'bout that. Pain's goin' away...I think. Yeah, reminds me of the time I got in a storeroom with these two scullery maids. It's really bett...sssnnnnxxxx." His voice dissolved away into snores.

"Sleeping potion's the other one." Charity patted the snoring Neely on the cheek. "Now we can set those legs. Flynn, we're going to need some wood for splints."

Flynn gathered pine branches suitable for the task. "How come you know all this stuff? I mean, no offence, Miss Charity, but you ain't old enuf."

She searched through the branches, selecting those best for splints as she answered Flynn. "My brother and I stayed with this old man for a while, he's that Milward I mentioned. He knew about a lot of things. He liked to go on long walks through the forest sampling and discovering what Mother Nature had to offer for those with their eyes open enough to see. That's how he put it. Adam and I went on a lot of those walks with him, during that time, when the weather was mild enough. He taught us about what plants are good for certain medicines, and which ones to watch out for as being poisonous...along with other things. Adam and I have always had good memories. We don't forget much. Didn't, I mean."

Flynn cut lengths of canvas cloth to tie the splints. "What do ye mean, didn't?"

Charity didn't look up. "My brother was killed, remember? In that war between Spu and Avern just before you two found me in that cornfield."

Flynn nodded his head. "Yeah, I remember. You scared the piss outta us with that bow of yours. I remember that, too."

Charity looked up at him and grinned. "I did, didn't I? Ok, now we've got to set these legs. First, help me get these boots off him. We don't need rot setting in."

Flynn gently held onto each of Neely's legs as Charity slowly removed the boots. She then placed both hands on Neely's right leg and nodded at Flynn. "Get around so you can pull this leg from the heel and toe. Do it real slow, and quietly. I need to listen as well as feel."

Flynn did as he was told. Charity held up a hand when she heard the soft click of Neely's bones realigning. "Hold it there, now. Steady. Don't move at all. Good."

Charity placed a splint on either side of the leg, centered at a point where she believed the break to be, and then slipped one of the canvas strips under them and the leg, and then tied it snugly. She repeated the process with two more of the strips and then checked all three of them when done. Then they did the other leg.

"Ok Flynn. You can let loose of him, but slowly. It's going to be a while before he'll even be able to use crutches."

"How we gonna get 'im outta here?" The big man scratched the back of his head. It sounded like sandpaper being used.

Charity looked at Neely and then at Flynn, "Think you can put him over your shoulder without banging his legs?"

Flynn considered his friend. "Oh, I can lift him, all right. Flingin' him over me shoulder without hurtin' his legs is the problem."

"How about if you pick him up and I control his feet? Maybe I can keep them from slapping against you." Charity pantomimed her idea with her hands.

"Sounds good to me." Flynn bent and took the sleeping Neely by his left arm and his right armpit. As he straightened, the tracker came with him, and Flynn helped the motion along with the strength of his huge arms. Charity watched closely as Neely was lifted, and stepped in to control the swing of the legs.

"I think that'll do it." Charity stepped back and surveyed Flynn and his burden. "We may as well start walking."

Flynn kept his eyes on the ground while they made their way back to the site where he found the horses. Flynn kept Neely draped over his shoulder while Charity built a bower out of branches and one of the blankets.

"You 'bout done, Miss Charity? My shoulder's startin' to go to sleep."

"Just about done...there. You can put him down now, Flynn. Easy...easy...good, he ought to be comfortable there." Charity gave the bower a critical eye.

"How long's he gonna have to stay like that?" Flynn massaged his shoulder.

"Normally, at least a month, but Milward taught me how to mix a potion that'll cut it to one week." Charity pulled at her lower lip as she watched Neely slumber in the bower.

"Milward?"

"That was the old man's name, remember?. Milward. A cranky old buzzard sometimes, but I sure enjoyed the time we spent together. I wonder how things are going with him these days?"

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