Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 9
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Their inquiries met with the same kind of amused skepticism Ehomba had encountered before. It was a reaction that, on repetition, was beginning to grow tiresome. Was he the only man who believed that to travel from one place to another, no matter how reputedly dangerous or difficult, all that was required was for one to start walking in the requisite direction?
"Lissen, you," stammered the ancient pathfinder who was too bored not to talk to them, "we all every one of us knows where Ehl-Larimar lies." Raising a shaky finger that resembled a strip of rolled saddle leather, he pointed westward. Behind Ehomba, huge hands clapped delightedly together.
"See, Etjole, see! Hunkapa know, Hunkapa guide!"
"Be quiet, Hunkapa," the mildly annoyed herdsman admonished his hulking friend. The matted one fell silent.
"If you all know how to get to Ehl-Larimar, why cannot one of you guide us there?"
"Because the difficulty's not in the knowin', it's in the goin'." Peering behind his questioner, the elderly guide considered the herdsman's blond hair. "Why you braid up your locks like that, man? Seen wimmens do it, but never 'til now a buck."
"It is the style among the men of my village." Uncharacteristically, Ehomba was becoming impatient with this short, skinny sage, who reminded him of chattering macaws. "What is so difficult about the going to Ehl-Larimar that you and all your colleagues refuse to take us?"
Aged eyes that had seen much rolled in their sockets as if loose. "Why, out west there's dangerous wild critters everywhere, some of 'em monstrous big, others with long fangs that drip poison." To emphasize the latter, he protruded his upper jaw far beyond the lower and flapped it to simulate biting motions.
"First you have to get through the Hexen Mountains. Then there's the demons what live in the interior, and hostile tribes of things thet ain't always human." He was waving his birdlike arms wildly now, using them to magnify the drama of his own declamations.
"Get past them, and then there's the Tortured Lands, and beyond thet, the Curridgian Mountains with their ice fields and rock slides." Lack of wind finally forced him to call a halt to the hymn of horrors.
"And after that?" Ehomba asked quietly.
"After thet? After thet!" Calming himself with an effort, the senior pathfinder took a deep breath. "Why, after thet is Ehl-Larimar its very self, and beyond there, the Ocean Aurreal."
"Another ocean?" Raising himself up, Simna had his hirsute nurse place him on the ground. On shaky legs, he confronted his lanky friend. "By Guisel's gearing, Etjole, no more long sea voyages! I beg you!"
Ehomba's brows rose slightly. "I thought you enjoyed our sojourn on the sea."
Anxious eyes gazed up at him. "Hoy, long bruther, it wasn't the voyage that leaves me looking like this.
It were the arrival."
The herdsman nodded noncommittally. "Somehow I do not think we would face a similar situation on another ocean entirely, but I will certainly keep your concerns in mind. I do not see why it would be necessary for us to take passage on this western ocean anyway, since if it lies to the west of Ehl-Larimar, we should reach our destination before we encounter it." Turning back to the guide, who was by now feeling sorely left out of the verbal byplay, he offered his thanks for the information.
While not one of the available pathfinders could be induced to travel with them, the master of the dispatch center was persuaded to sell them a windwagon and supplies. Ehomba was once more astonished to see in what exalted regard other peoples held the humble colored beach pebbles he had brought with him from the shore just north of the village. While the supply in the little cotton sack was diminished, it was by no means exhausted, suggesting that if the same responses were to be encountered elsewhere, they might be able to pay for their needs the rest of the way to distant Ehl-Larimar without misgiving.
Though with Hunkapa Aub and the black litah aboard, the windwagon was a bit crowded, it held them all, together with their newly purchased supplies. Steering was by means of a straightforward tiller-and-axle arrangement, and manipulation of the single simple square of canvas that provided the wagon's motive power posed no problem for travelers who had just spent weeks aboard a large sailing vessel. To the cheers and jeers of the personnel at the dispatch station (their respective individual reactions being directly related to how much of the visitors' story they had happened to overhear), the four adventurers once more set sail, this time in a craft both smaller and noisier than the graceful and recently departedGromsketter.
A plentitude of roads and wagon tracks led off in all directions from Doroune. By far the greatest number led north or south to the other trading towns and farming communities of the fertile coastal plain.
A lesser selection offered access to the western horizon. Choosing the most direct, the travelers soon found themselves clear of the city and its suburbs and among tillage of grain and vegetable. People working in the fields would look up and wave, at least until they caught sight of Hunkapa Aub or the black litah. Unlike the worldly citizens of sophisticated metropolises such as Hamacassar or Lybondai, the peoples living on this side of the Semordria were of a far more insular nature.
So while they were cordial, they tended to keep their distance whenever the wagon pulled up outside an inn or tavern. Though less openly friendly than the inhabitants of distant Netherbrae, they were at the same time more accepting of the ways of others. Soon enough Ehomba and his companions began to receive warnings similar to those that had been voiced by the aged guide in Doroune.
"You might as well turn back now." The blacksmith who had agreed to perform a final check on their wagon spoke meaningfully as he rose and knelt, rose and knelt while moving from one wheel to another.
"Why?" Ehomba shielded his eyes as he gazed westward, to where the track they were following vanished into looming hills densely forested with ancient beech and oak, sycamore and elm. "My companions and I have crossed many high ranges, and this that lies before us does not look either very high or very difficult to scale."
"The Hexens?" The affable blacksmith moved to another wheel. "They're not. Takes a while to get through them, but the road goes all the way across. At least it did last I heard tell of it. Even a child could make the walk."
The herdsman was openly puzzled. "Then what is the danger from these mountains?"
Taking a hammer and chisellike tool from his heavy work apron, their host began to bend back and tighten a bolt that was threatening to work its way loose.
"From the mountains, none." Looking up, he stared hard at the lean and curious visitor. "It's what lives in the Hexens that you have to watch out for. Deep in the inner valleys, where the fog lingers most all the day long and people never go." He shrugged and turned away. "Leastwise, those people that go in and come out again. What happens to the ones who go in and don't come out, well, a man can only guess."
"Hoy, we're not easily frightened," Simna informed him. Nearby, Ahlitah was playing with the blacksmith's brace of brown-and-white kittens, having promised Ehomba not to eat any of them. They assaulted the big cat's mane and tail while he batted gently at them with paws that could bring down a full-grown buffalo with a single blow. "Go ahead and guess."
The blacksmith paused in his work. "You really mean to do this, don't you?"
Simna made a perfunctory gesture in the herdsman's direction. "My friend has a fetish for the west. So that's the way we go. Would it be safer to head north or south and then turn inland toward our destination?"
The blacksmith considered. "I'm no voyager like you." He indicated the sturdy house and shop set just back off the road. "Family man. But settled here, at the foot of the Hexens, I meet many travelers. Go north and you're liable to run into bad weather. But south-head south and then turn west, and you'll skirt the base of the mountains." He turned back to his work. "Of course, there are other dangers to be encountered when traveling in the south."
"How long must we move south before we could turn west again and miss these mountains?" Ehomba was willing to consider reasonable alternatives.
"A month, maybe two, depending on the condition of the roads and the weather. This time of year, traveling weather's best between Oos and Nine Harbors. That's where you are right now, more or less."
The herdsman nodded tersely. "Then we go west from here."
"Why am I not surprised?" Simna's sigh was muted. He knew his tall friend well enough by now to have put money on his response. "You were going to tell us about the dangers we might run into in these Hexens."
"It's not a certain thing," the pensive blacksmith replied. "Many people make the crossing and return safely to the coast. For traders who do so, the rewards are considerable."
"I can imagine, if so many folks are too scared to even attempt it. What happens to those who don't make it back? Bandits?" The swordsman was extrapolating from similar situations that existed on the borders of his own homeland.
The blacksmith was shaking his head. "Bandits people can deal with. Tolls can be met, bribes paid, ransoms raised. Highwaymen would not discourage more people from traveling to the west. It is the Brotherhood of the Bone that terrifies would-be travelers and keeps them at home." Hitherto ringing, his voice had dropped to an edgy whisper.
"Do we have to ask what that might be?"
"Doesn't matter." The blacksmith's tone remained subdued. "I can't talk about it. Not openly, in front of others. You're determined to push on, so I'll just wish you good luck." He indicated the front of his shop, where Ahlitah was toying with the delighted kittens and Hunkapa Aub lay half asleep, sitting up against one side of the entrance, his mouth open wide enough to reveal a gap sufficiently commodious to accommodate both nest- and abode-hunting birds. "You are obviously knowledgeable wayfarers, and you have powerful nonhuman friends of your own. With luck, you'll make it. You might not have any trouble at all." He spread his hands wide and smiled regretfully. "Iron and steel I can forge for you, but not luck."
"You said 'nonhuman,'" Ehomba remarked. "Are the members of this Brotherhood of the Bone not human?"
"Some are, some ain't. I hope you don't have occasion to find out." Rising, he replaced his tools in his apron and wiped his hands. "Come inside for a cold drink and we'll settle your bill." His expression darkened ever so slightly. "You have money?"
Simna smirked knowingly. "Money enough. Before we left Doroune we took the time to cash a pebble."
In the depths of the mountains it was difficult to remember the admonitions of blacksmith and guide, so congenial were the surroundings. Though the splendid forest crowded the wagon track on both sides, it was not oppressive. Heavy broad-leaf litter covered the ground, making a carpet for deer and elk, broad-shouldered sivatherium, and droopy-horned pelorovis. Squirrels of many species foraged among the ground cover, methodically conveying found foods from the surface to their homes high up in the accommodating trees. Ehomba was particularly taken with one short-tailed gray-and-brown variety that built endless tiny ladders to assist them in reaching the highest branches. Communities of these enterprising rodents traveled safely back and forth between boles by means of tiny carts suspended from thin but strong ropes.
Rabbits scurried about in profusion, providing effortless hunting for Ahlitah and a welcome supplement to their purchased provisions. Since no one had been able to tell them exactly how far it was to Ehl-Larimar, they availed themselves of every opportunity to feast off the land. Stowed food was to be conserved, since it might prove vital to their well-being should they encounter less-productive country.
Acorns and chestnuts could be easily gathered from beneath heavily laden boughs, and small rushing streams were everywhere. Morning and evening mist kept the temperature on the chilly side, but to travelers who had successfully crossed the great Hrugar Range hard by the base of Mount Scathe itself, the occasional discomfort was minor at most.
Birds in their colorful profusion nested in the forks of branches. Their darting songs echoed through the woods. One persistent archeopteryx in particular kept attacking their provisions in hopes of stealing one of the smaller brightly wrapped packages of food. When their attention was diverted it would dive-bomb the wagon, attacking with teeth and claws, until one of the travelers shooed it away. Cawing huffily, it paralleled them for quite a ways, flapping awkwardly from tree to tree until the next opportunity for avian larceny presented itself. Eventually it gave up and fell behind. As poor a flyer as a hoatzin, it could not trail them forever.
After a number of days of easy, relatively comfortable travel interrupted only by the occasional need to get out and pull or push the wagon where there was an absence of wind, Simna had begun to relax. It was a state of being that Hunkapa Aub never exited and Ahlitah pursued with feline determination. Of the four travelers, only Ehomba remained on perpetual alert. This situation the swordsman was content to live with.
Lying against the back of the wagon, hands behind his head, he looked up contentedly as his lanky friend adjusted the single sail. Today's breeze was not strong, but it blew steadily from the east, driving them through the narrow canyon they were currently traversing.
"The people of this coast are really missing something by restricting their settlements to the flatlands east of these mountains." He waved a casual hand at the enclosing forested slopes. "This is wonderful country. Clean, bracing air, lots of small game, no dangerous predators that we've encountered, fertile soil, and some of the best timber I've ever seen. There are trees in here old and strong and big enough to supply lumber for a hundred thousand homes and ten thousand ships the size of theGromsketter. "
Intent as ever, Ehomba was watching the forest slide past on either side of the track. Tugging on a line, he trimmed the wagon's single sail slightly. "It may be that this Brotherhood would object. Certainly if they harry individual travelers they would rise up against any organized settlement. Perhaps that is why none exists."
Simna waved diffidently. "Gwouroud knows that's not it, bruther. They're just fearful folk hereabouts.
They feed off the tall tales and spook stories of their neighbors. I've been through provinces like that, where everyone is so credulous they're scared to set foot beyond their own village." Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply of the brisk, unpolluted air, its innate refreshingness enhanced by the extra oxygen being pumped out by the forest.
The wagon hit a rut and bounced, jarring Ahlitah momentarily awake. "Pick your trail with care, man,"
"There is only one." Ehomba's response was curt. "And while we have the wind with us, this is no flying machine to soar smoothly over what water has cut." Moments after Ehomba composed his terse rejoinder, the wagon began to slow.
Opening his eyes again, Simna ibn Sind saw that the wind still blew in gusts sufficient to drive the vehicle.
It was Ehomba who was bringing them to a gradual halt as he turned the sail sideways to the breeze.
Frowning, the swordsman sat up.
"Hoy, bruther, why are we stopping?" A glance at the sky showed that it was too early for the midday meal. It was time for them to be covering as much ground as possible, not pausing to rest or engage in casual contemplation of their surroundings. "This wind is meant to be used."
"So are your eyes." Standing near the rear of the wagon, the herdsman held his long, slim arm out straight, parallel to the ground and pointing to his right, off into the woods.
Blinking, Simna glanced in the indicated direction. So did an insouciant Hunkapa Aub. Curled up near the back of the wagon, the black litah ignored the delay in favor of sleep.
"I don't see anything, bruther." The swordsman's confusion showed itself in his face. "What are you pointing at? What am I supposed to be looking for?"
"In that big elm. A bird." Ehomba sighted along his arm. "I understand your difficulty. It is not very big.
About the size of a sparrow."
Simna made a face. "You stopped so we could look at a sparrow?"
"There!" Ehomba's identifying finger shifted slightly to the right. "It just flew into the tree next to it. It is a little closer now. See?" He gestured impatiently with his arm. "Near the outer end of the lowermost large branch, among the leaves."
Realizing that to resume headway meant humoring the herdsman, Simna muttered under his breath. As he adjusted his position slightly in the wagon, he was nearly knocked over by the abrupt shifting of the hairy mass next to him.
"Hunkapa see, Hunkapa see!" Their oversized companion was pointing excitedly, bouncing up and down in the wagon. The stalwart wooden bed creaked dangerously. "Bird without!"
"Without?" Time to put an end to whatever nonsense had afflicted his friends, Simna decided. "Without what?" Straining, he followed the pair of pointing arms and used them to fix his gaze on a particular branch in a certain tree.
He located the bird, and as he did so the small hairs on the back of his neck erected. That was more than the bird could do. It had no hair to stiffen, or feathers either. Nor skin, nor muscle or insides.
Sitting on the branch and preening itself with its naked white beak, the small flying creature ignored all the attention its presence had prompted. Satisfied, it spread proportionate, compact wings and rose from its perch, flying off into the forest, a small white specter comprised of nothing but naked, fleshless bones.
Ehomba had watched many birds in flight, and dragonets, and even certain specialized lizards and frogs, but this was the first time he had ever seen a skeleton fly.
The skeletal sparrow was but the first of many they encountered as they drove deeper into the heart of the Hexens. There were more birds: crows and robins, jays and grosbeaks, neocaths and nuthatches. But they were not alone. It was not long before they found themselves traveling through a dense and dismal section of forest where flesh was scarce and scoured bone dominant.
Skeletal hares hopped among the roots of sheltering trees. Four-footed white skeletons scampered through the branches trailing furless vertebrae like the whiptails of scorpions. Once, a cluster of capybara peered up at the travelers from the shelter of their stream, staring at the wagon from the mindless depths of dark, voided eye sockets. For the travelers, it was unsettling enough to encounter such sights. To see them staring vacantly back was more unnerving still.
Devoid of skin and muscle they might be, but the inhabitants of these woods ran and flew and hopped and jumped with as much energy as their more fully rounded, naturally fleshed-out counterparts. The only other observable difference between them and their tissue-heavy relations was the degree to which they stared at the passing visitors: stared with a degree and intensity that grimly belied their dearth of eyes. If not for the presence of healthy trees and bushes, Simna could well have believed that they had rolled on into the land of the dead.
Studying the forest as they rattled along the increasingly ill-maintained dirt track, bumping over rocks and clumps of uncropped weeds, they watched a misshapen panoply of normal life play itself out among the vegetation. Ehomba pointed out a skeletal badger busily excavating a new burrow with more than adequate claws-but no pads on its feet. A great bull elk trotted past, displaying horns that in its entirely emaciated state seemed certain to make it too topheavy to stand up, much less run. But it managed to stay erect nonetheless.
Once, a bobcat of bones leaped from concealment to take down a large rabbit. Normally, there is no more piercing and heart-rending sound in the wilderness than the cry of a dying rabbit, but this one could only emit the noise of bare bones rubbing together. Settling down to its meal, the ghostly feline began to gnaw on its victim, pinning it to the ground with limber white paws. Biting and ripping with sharp teeth, it methodically dismembered its prey, cracking open the smaller bones to get at the marrow within.
Tiny skeletal fledglings croaked in nests carefully built by osseous parents. A trio of cassowaries loped across a clearing, their exposed ribs clacking against one another like castanets as they ran. Cumbersome grizzly skeletons grazed in a dense patch of wild blackberries. Occasionally one would become entangled as the thorny vines wrapped tightly around ribs or arms. One bear-shape pushed its snout deep into the copse, emerging with it stained blue-black by berry juice. A vine thrust upward through the underside of the jaw to emerge from one eye socket. This vegetal invasion appeared to have no effect on the lumbering ursinoid.
Why a skeleton would need to eat was but one of many questions contemplated by the travelers. As was his nature, Ehomba very much wanted some answers, whereas his companions simply wished to be clear of the blighted chasm as rapidly as possible. Even Ahlitah, who had a particular taste for marrow, sensed the unwholesomeness of the place and expressed his desire to leave it behind.
Abruptly, the wagon made a sharp swerve. "Hoy!" Simna called out as he was thrown off his feet.
"Who's steering?" Looking around as soon as he managed to recover his equilibrium, he caught sight of Ehomba taking in the sail. "Etjole, what are you up to, man? Surely you don't mean for us to camp here?"
"Not camp." The herdsman spoke while continuing his work. "But we have to stop for a moment." By way of explanation he nodded forward.
A large tree had fallen across the wagon track, blocking it completely. Thick underbrush on either side prevented them from going around. The toppled trunk would have to be moved, or cut through, or else the wagon would have to be unloaded and hauled across, with their supplies following from hand to hand, one package at a time.
"By Givouvum, what a place for a rest stop!" Grumbling loudly at the inconvenience, the swordsman vaulted over the side of the wagon to inspect the impediment.
"A stop, yes, but from the look of it, no rest." Ehomba was soon standing alongside his friend. Together they pondered how best to proceed, whether to try to remove the log or move themselves across it.
Not one given to much pondering, Hunkapa Aub lumbered over to the top of the tree where it lay among a host of smaller saplings it had smashed in the course of its fall. For a long moment he stood in silence, considering the supine column. Then he bent his knees, gripped the upper stretch of the tree in both huge hands, and with a rolling grunt lifted it off the ground and began to pull it deeper into the woods and off the road. Joining reluctantly in the effort, the black litah put its forehead against the shattered base of the tree. Digging in with all four sets of claws, it pushed while Hunkapa pulled.
It took them less than ten minutes to move the trunk far enough off the track for the wagon to squeeze past. Starting back to their vehicle, Ehomba found himself wondering how much more of the blighted forest they had yet to traverse, and whether they would be out of it by nightfall. Hopefully, they would be far away before darkness fell, provided nothing else materialized to impede their progress.
That feared something else took the form of several dozen figures who emerged from behind the wagon and the brush off to one side. Each skeletal warrior carried a heavy wooden club or spear, save for several who brandished weapons confiscated from unlucky predecessors. A few wore scavenged armor.
Ill-fitting helmets of bronze and steel bounced loosely on naked, bony skulls. Feathers and iridescent insect parts protruded from the metal crests, supplying a macabre touch of color to warriors whose appearance was otherwise almost entirely the bleached, chalky white of naked bone. Many of the animate advancing cadavers were missing teeth or limbs.
Worse, they stood between the travelers and their vehicle, in which all their weapons were stored.
However, they were not entirely defenseless. As sepulchral shouts rose from the gaunt, ghastly regiment and weapons were upraised, Hunkapa Aub and Ahlitah took matters into their own hands and charged.
The shaggy man-beast's unearthly howling combined with the big cat's thunderous roars were enough to give even the dead pause. As the skeletal raiders hesitated, the improbable duo tore into them. It was a revelation to Simna to see the ferocity with which the gentle, soft-voiced Hunkapa scattered their attackers. Sword cuts failed to penetrate his thick, hairy coat, and spears he knocked aside with sweeping sideways blows of his massive arms. Grabbing up one clattering, cackling cluster of bones, he dismembered it as easily as the swordsman would a chicken. Ripping another assailant into pieces, Hunkapa threw chunks of bone at its companions, bowling them over with the force of his throws.
Skeletons were knocked askew or trampled underfoot.
Eyes blazing, Ahlitah was not relying on his stentorian bellows to scatter the enemy. Powerful, curving claws severed skulls from shoulders while heavy paws shattered vacant rib cages and limbs. The crackle of bones being crunched echoed through the woods every time the litah's powerful jaws locked onto another gaunt figure.
Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 9
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Catechist - A Triumph Of Souls Part 9 summary
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