“Why do you keep doing that?” Cassanya asked, crossing her arms and looking down at Feral as they walked.
“Doing what?” Feral paused, hands still on the hood of his cloak.
“That’s three riders passed us now. You’ve pulled your hood up every time.”
“Oh…” the young half-race looked abashed, turning his face away. “That. It’s just… well… sometimes people look at me…”
Cassanya’s eyebrows drew together. “So what? People look at me too, and Thor… that’s what happens when strangers pass by.”
“Not the same,” Feral watched the road underfoot, not wanting to look up at her.
“Why? You think they’re gonna prioritise yourears over theirproblems?” the leonin laughed. “I don’t think so! Trust me,” she added more softly. “The rest of the world isn’t thatinterested.”
“Some are. Some people don’t like…”
“And some of them don’t like me for being leonin, or Thor for being lupari,” Cassanya cut across him before he could finish. “It’s not what you arethat they have a problem with, it’s what you’re not. It’s that you’re not like them. However you’re born, whoever your parents, it’s the same. You’re not an exception, squirt.”
Feral was quiet for a while, and Cassanya sighed. “I guess it’s an old mistrust,” she said. “Long ago the peoples of the world would have fought each other, killed each other, for land or wealth, or just because they didn’t want to be around people who weren’t like they were. I wonder if there weren’t nine races once, maybe more...” she paused, looking thoughtful before she continued.
“But things have changed a lot, over time. Most places you go, you'll see faces from all the peoples. We’ve all got skills and ideas to offer, unique abilities and interests, so we learned to get along, to accept our differences, because then we all gain. Don't get me wrong, one of the few constants is a degree of xenophobia, but that's not what you ran into yesterday. Tell me, did those guys even say a word about your blood line?”
Feral thought for a while, then shook his head, rather surprised at the realisation.
Cassanya smiled. “Because it didn't matter. Why would a leonin care if you're human, vulpani, or half of each? Of course, we do have a bit of a hunting instinct,” she admitted, looking apologetic. “Or... well, a lot of one, actually. My people are fighters, raised to be strong and fearless warriors, and some of them can get a little overwhelmed with it at times – but most of us are honourable. Sure, we'll all fight when we have to,” she laughed. “And some of us will fight just for fun, but only when its fair and reasonable.”
She ticked off points on her fingers. “Never start a fight without cause, never finish a fight because of an unfair advantage. If your opponent is unarmed, throw down your weapon and use your fists. If it's not your enemy, don't fight it, if your enemy can't fight back, let them run, and if it's not food or enemy, don't hunt it,” she paused for a few seconds. “And remind us if we forget.”
Feral still looked a little dubious. On Cassanya’s other side, Balthor chuckled. “Don’t worry too much about it, Feral. Told you yesterday, only a leonin will ever know how a leonin thinks.”
“Hey!” Cassanya punched his arm, but only gently.
“See?” the lupari said, grinning now.
“That’s unfair, we’re not that bad!”
“Not all of you, no,” Balthor admitted. “You’reok, Cassy.”
“Thanks… I think… My pointwas,” she continued. “That you need to be a bit less concerned about how people see you,” she added, grabbing Feral's hat from his hand and plonking it firmly onto his head. “That's perfectly fine head wear, and if anyone on this road has a problem, they can discuss it with me, all right?”
Feral couldn’t help but smile. “All right.”
It wasn't until they were leaving Cliffward town that Feral thought to ask, “Where are we going?”
“Told you yesterday, back to your uncle's place,” Cassanya answered.
“I meant now,” Feral amended, stopping, looking along the road that lead away from the coast. “The coast trail was back that way,” he added, pointing back towards the ocean.
“And there's a big loop of the Westflow about seven leagues south west,” Balthor told him. “Once we get to that, we can follow it all the way to the Skystones. Bit rough once we hit the pass but...”
“I need to go to Stonebridge,” Feral said.
“Whatever for?” Cassanya asked. “This way's about two days faster!”
“Yes, but I needto go to Stonebridge,” Feral said again. “Because that's where they distribute the news scroll.”
Cassanya gave him a look that suggested he was thoroughly mad.
“I need to know what happened,” Feral told her flatly. “Or... whether it's happened elsewhere. Someone must have seen something, and that's where there'll be a record, and that's where I might find out who's responsible.”
“Or you could just ask the master mage who happens to have sent me out here to get you!”
“And who had no clue what's actually happened,” Feral pointed out. “Look, believe me, I'm really grateful to uncle Felli, and to you, but I can'tstop looking for Shara. She's my sister, I have gotto find her, and if there's any chance, anychance that there's information in the news archives that might be relevant, I haveto find it.”
“You know we're going to be walking the best part of a month already?”
“Yes,” Feral nodded. “So I guess two more days won't make much difference, will it?”
And with that, he turned around and headed for the coast road at a brisk limp, looking much more certain than he felt.
Cassanya exchanged glances with Balthor, then sighed.
“You're a pain sometimes, you know that?”
Feral tried not to show his relief as she caught him up, determinedly keeping his eyes forward.
“Yes,” he agreed. “Sorry. I can't let her down.”
“No, well, I guess if it were one of my sisters I'd feel the same way,” the leonin admitted. “But please don't get your hopes up. I've heard nothing, and if the magi don't know anything... I'm not so sure anybody does. We'll try, I promise we'll try, but I wouldn't expect you'll come away with much.”
Choosing not to answer, Feral let his gaze stray out to sea, across the wide blue ocean. Somewhere out there. Somewhere.
That night they made camp at the top of a small hill offering a view of a calm bay along the shore, the sandy beach running in a smooth curve until it suddenly vanished where it swept out of their line of sight. The trees on either side were more than sufficient to provide shelter from the light breeze, but despite this Feral found himself awake far past midnight, watching the stars slowly turning overhead.
The road to Stonebridge was long, but not particularly challenging. Following the shoreline proved to be every merchant's favoured method as well, and a reasonable track had been worn into the ground. A sea breeze kept the air fresh, while in the distance to the south, gentle hills undulated under tall grass and thick heather. Open grassland for the first day, tending towards marsh by evening, and by the following afternoon the companions were approaching the relaxed shade of thick woodland.
Small birds twittered in the branches overhead, scolding the intruders for encroaching on their territory. A carpet of bluebells dispersed their soft fragrance from the shadows among the trees. To the north, a hill rose, falling away somewhere on the far side in a near vertical plunge to the ocean, but the road had taken the far more sensible option of a gentle detour to the south.
Somewhere around mid day the road passed through a small clearing. A number of burnt out camp fires suggested that other wayfarers had come to the conclusion that it was a comfortable spot in which to rest – and indeed it was. Thick moss covered several fallen trees, providing comfortable seating while they ate. From somewhere distant up ahead, Feral felt he could hear the soft burble of running water, perhaps some small overspill from the mighty Westflow river many leagues to the south.
“Cassanya...” Feral started, and she looked at him enquiringly. “What can you tell me about uncle Felli?”
Smiling, the leonin thought for a moment before replying. “Well, I've worked for him for several years now, and I've always found him to be kind, and thoughtful. Too thoughtful,” she corrected, “He does have a terrible tendency to get bound up in something he's working on and forget the simple things like eating and sleeping. I guess maybe that's how it is with all magi. If you're going to study magic, you have to put it first, I think. Above all your other desires and plans, perhaps even above the people you care for. Though apparently not in your case,” she nodded to the thin chain around Feral's neck.
“He does a lot of work to help people, actually – he's probably the most moderate voice on the council. There always seems to be talk of hiding the magi away, of sealing off from society, but Master Forester refused, even when most of the others moved to their little island, he kept his home in the Freelands. Wants the best for everyone. Poor old duffer, if only it worked like that, but I do like that he tries.”
Feral smiled. He had a feeling he was going to like his great uncle when they finally met.
After a brief rest, they packed up and continued onwards. After an hour or so, the road resumed its eastward march, apparently content to keep a distance from the ocean, the dense forest continuing on both sides. A little way ahead they could see a junction where a track from the south met theirs. Apart from the signpost at the meeting point, there was nothing to be seen of the other road, hidden behind a thick screen of trees and undergrowth. There must be something on it however, Cassanya thought, sighing internally as she glanced down at Feral and realising that they could use his hearing as an early warning system for anyone approaching.
They arrived at the junction, Feral with his hood now raised, just as a rather scruffy looking sciurel arrived from the other path. Around four and a half feet in height – about average for his race – with another three feet of thick tail, he was dressed in a worn green vest and pants, the legs of which ended rather raggedly about halfway down his shins. He wore no boots, instead having bound much of his feet and ankles with strong but weathered strips of cloth, allowing the pads of his bare feet to rest on the ground. He was rather slim in build, and his thick fur was a rich russet, except for the white of his chin and throat, and the paler underside to his bushy tail. Over his shoulder, he carried a huntsman’s bow, with a quiver of arrows upon his back.
The sciurel glanced at the trio, nodded, and continued down the road ahead, whistling jauntily and evidently unbothered by their presence. Cassanya shrugged. It was a free road, after all.
It should have been a free road, Cassanya amended. A small stream cut a ditch across their path, disappearing into the trees on either side. A wooden bridge all of three yards long spanned it. The sun shone through a gap in the canopy to the south, brightening the road where the stream crossed it, glittering upon the water, dancing among the slowly waving plants under the surface. Birds sang softly from the trees. Overall, it was a remarkably pleasant spot, apart from the barrier in front of the bridge.
“’Alt?” the sciurel just ahead of them stopped as the bridge guard challenged him. “Why?”
“Toll!” the muscai guard demanded in a squeaky voice, pointing a short spear up at the approaching sciurel, who, short as he was, still topped the diminutive gatekeeper by six inches.
“You have to be kidding me…” Cassanya said softly as she arrived beside the sciurel.
“Toll!” the muscai demanded again, apparently undaunted by the leonin’s frown, his ears somewhere around the level of her naval. “Three copper. Each.”
“Toll for what?” Feral asked, looking around at the trees, half expecting some form of entertainment or refreshments to be on offer.
“Using the bridge,” the muscai gestured, and Feral looked at it.
“You built it?” the sciurel eyed the structure dubiously. It seemed rather poorly made, and quite old to boot. The wood looked slightly rotten, and was largely covered in moss. He glanced back at Feral, Balthor, and Cassanya as if checking they were just as confused as he was.
“Don’t matter. I’m guarding it.” The muscai shifted his helmet back on his head as it slipped down below his eyes. Feral stifled an urge to laugh. How effective could a three foot six guard expect to be?
“Chief, I could jump over that stream if I wanted to,” the sciurel pointed out, quite politely Feral thought, given the apparent ludicrousness of the situation.
The muscai looked thoughtful. “You could,” he said, at length. Feral tried harder not to laugh. “But then you would have to die.”
That changed Feral’s smile into a frown, one that was mirrored on the sciurel’s furry face.
“That ain’t a friendly attitude,” he said to the guard. “An’ it ain’t nice to threaten travellers.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” the muscai said quickly. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not threatening you.”
“Well, that’s more like…”
“Frakk!” the muscai shouted.
“That’s wot I thought you said…” the sciurel looked as confused as Feral felt, leaning on his bow and scratching an ear.
“Frakk! Wake up!”
There was a noise off to one side of the road as what Feral had assumed to be a large boulder suddenly rolled over. It blinked at the group from the shadows of the bushes it was almost hidden in, then stood up.
Like all ursai, this one was tall, easily topping seven feet high, and about half that in width. With sloping shoulders and very little neck to speak of, he looked rather like an ambling furry mountain, only wearing thick leather armour across his torso and upper legs. Somewhat bloodshot eyes peered down at them as the ursai shambled over to stand in front of the muscai.
“Toll!” he rumbled.
“Now I know you’re kidding me,” Cassanya looked around the ursai to his small companion, who seemed to be the brains of the pair. “Come on,” she gestured to Feral and Balthor, making a move to walk around the ursai.
“Toll!” the giant demanded, shoving her hard on the shoulder with one hand.
“Back off!” Balthor’s sword flashed in the sunlight.
“Fight?” the ursai rumbled, looking at the sword. The other huge hand swung with remarkable speed, hitting the lupari’s sword to one side with a clang. Astonished, Balthor stepped back, looking at a sword that was now bent in the middle. The ursai smiled and raised his hand. He was wearing a thick steel gauntlet, spiked and weighted, and quite lethal if applied with force - which the ursai didn’t appear to lack.
“I don’t think a fight’d be a good thing right now…” the sciurel suggested as the ursai lumbered forwards.
“Not sure you’ve got a choice,” Balthor said, blocking another swing of the gauntlet and gaining another dint in his sword.
“Frakk! Wait! They might want to pay the toll!” the muscai shouted.
“Fight!” the ursai seemed rather pleased at the prospect, smiling broadly, and completely ignoring his companion.
“Fight! Fight!” Two more dents. Balthor’s sword was rapidly taking on a new shape.
“Stop it!” Cassanya tried to grab the ursai’s left arm.
“Don’t wanna,” the ursai informed her, landing a heavy backhanded punch across the leonin’s cheek, sending her crashing backwards.
“Hey! You’ll fight me, not her!” Balthor’s sword hit the dirt, buckled and useless, a knife in the his hand. Darting forward, he narrowly dodged the metal fist that came at him, twisting to the side, getting under the ursai’s defence. Feral could see the plan, a crippling strike across the forearm above the metal that would end the fight quickly, cutting tendon and muscle.
“Thor, don’t!” Cassanya called out from where she had fallen in the dirt, one hand reaching out to him.
“Dammit!” instead of stopping, the lupari kept his momentum going, rolling his back across the ursai’s armour, ducking out under the outstretched arm and out of range. “You want to give me another option?” he snapped as the ursai ponderously turned to face him.
“Back off, guv!” the sciurel had notched an arrow to his bow and aimed it at the lumbering furry mountain, running round to get back in the giant’s line of sight. “Ain’t polite to ‘it a lady, an’ so ‘elp me I willput this through you!” Despite his words, Feral could see that the bowstring was not pulled back tightly – it seemed the sciurel was unwilling to fire on someone who was clearly dim witted.
“Poke me with little stick?” the ursai rumbled, clearly confused by the long sentence, or the sciurel's thick accent, or both.
“Arrow,” the sciurel corrected.
“Not afraid of stick…” Frakk reached forwards. The bow twanged, and the arrow lodged in his thick armour, failing to penetrate more than half an inch.
“Ow!” the ursai yelled as the tip of the arrow pricked him through the leather, several birds taking flight from their perch in a nearby tree. He pulled the arrow out of his armour and tossed it to one side. “Stop that!”
“I will if you will…” the sciurel backed up slightly, fitting another arrow to his bow, but still looking reluctant to fire at full force.
Feral had no idea what to do.
Balthor and the sciurel both stood before the ursai, weapons raised. In striking Cassanya, it seemed the ursai had touched a nerve and Balthor was clearly losing his patience. Feral could see the lupari’s eyes studying his opponent, gauging every hint of weakness, every moment of hesitation in his movement. If nothing were done, one of them was clearly going to get hurt very soon, and Feral wasn’t quite sure whether training or brute force would be the victor.
Cassanya was still on the ground, one cheek bloodied, and the muscai was watching with his mouth open and his spear held loosely in one hand, obviously as flustered as Feral.
“Hey!” Feral demanded, striding towards the muscai and grabbing his spear near the point. “Stop him!” he pointed at the ursai as Balthor and the sciurel backed up, the bearlike form advancing on them with regular, deadly swings of the gauntlet that fortunately connected with nothing more than air.
“How?” the muscai asked.
“You tell me, he’s your friend!” Feral gave the spear a tug and was surprised when the muscai let it go without objection.
“Have youtried to stop an ursai when his blood's up?” the muscai looked up at him, looking slightly plaintive.
A heavy thud and a yelp.
Turning, Feral found that the ursai now had the front of the sciurel’s vest in one hand, lifting him easily off the ground, with Balthor flat on his back. The ursai was laughing, not callously or cruelly, but simply amused at swinging the sciurel around, and seemingly quite unaware that his playmate was struggling to breathe with the huge fist pressed to his throat.
Feral did the only thing he could think of. Running forwards, he swung the spear, slamming the side of against the ursai’s unprotected leg, just above the large sandal-shod foot.
The wood split, sending splinters flying, but the ursai had stopped.
To Feral’s great surprise, the giant sat down in the middle of the road, clutching his ankle and dropping the sciurel into the dust.
“Um…” Feral wasn’t sure what to do, holding the shattered shaft of the spear in both hands as he looked down at the howling ursai. Balthor and the sciurel looked at him, apparently seeking some form of guidance, but Feral could only shrug in bafflement.
“Why boy do?” the ursai demanded.
Feral blinked. “Because I didn’t want you to hurt my friends…”
“Not for them. You're very big and very strong,” Feral explained slowly and simply. “You're only playing, but they get hurt.”
“Hurt like this?” the ursai looked up at him, eyes watering.
Feral nodded. “Yes, Frakk. Everyone hurts, just like that. I'm sorry I had to hit you.”
The ursai looked thoughtful. “Fight not fun.”
“No,” Feral shook his head, realising he seemed to have gained control of the situation, but not quite sure how. “Usually not.”
The ursai sniffed. “Not want fight.”
Feral smiled, and put the spear down. “Then we won’t,” he said quietly, gesturing for the others to lower their weapons.
“Oi!” the muscai trotted up. “I’ll say whether he fights or not!”
“Not fight!” Frakk roared loud enough to make the muscai’s fur stand on end. “Not want hurt. Not fair.”
The muscai didn’t seem to know what to do about this pronouncement.
“Going home,” Frakk announced suddenly, standing up. “Bye,” he waved vaguely at Feral as he shambled down the road, passing Balthor and the sciurel who moved aside quickly to let him pass, both looking quite astonished.
“Frakk!” the muscai squeaked. “Come back!”
“Not fun any more… going home…”
Balthor looked at the muscai and glowered. “Five seconds.”
The muscai escaped in three, disappearing into the trees at the side of the road. Standing and looking after him, Balthor’s fists tightened, the muscles of his arms visibly tensing.
Turning at the hand on his shoulder, the lupari’s posture relaxed. “Cassy?” One hand lifted to touch her cheek lightly and she winced. “You’re hurt. Damn, I’m sorry, I...”
“I’m fine,” she told him, dabbing her face with the back of her hand and motioning him to quiet.
“We should clean that,” Balthor insisted, leading her over to the bridge, sitting her down on the bank of the stream while he dipped a handkerchief into the water.
“Nicely done, guv,” Feral found the sciurel looking up at him.
“Uh, thanks,” he said.
“Archer,” the sciurel said, sticking out his hand.
“Oh. Feral. Feral Foxwood,” he took the sciurel’s offered hand and shook it. “Just Archer?”
“Just Archer,” the sciurel nodded. “I like your ears. Father or mother?”
Feral suddenly realised his hood had slipped in the fight, and blushed. “Father.”
“Lucky then,” the sciurel said. “Me, people say I got my mother’s ears. Mother’s everything, really. Pity, from what I know, my dad was quite the looker, could ‘ave used a bit o’ that meself.”
“Um…” Feral wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say.
“Which way were you headin’ then, guv?”
Feral gestured along the road, over the tiny bridge.
“Stonebridge? Thought so, nowt else on this road. Same for me,” Archer informed him. “We should team up, I like your style.”
“Straight in for the weak spot, no messin’, but you could’ve stabbed him with the point o' that,” he nodded at the spear on the ground. “But you didn’t. Good lateral thinking.”
“Uh, yeah…” Feral wondered whether he should mention that the result had been entirely unexpected and the action one of desperation.
“What’s your business in Stonebridge then?” the sciurel picked up the arrow that had failed to stop the ursai and examined it closely.
“I’m… not quite sure,” Feral admitted. “Cassanya,” he indicated the leonin woman behind him. “Knows more than I do. How about you?”
“Got me a bit of business with the knights, gonna go 'ave a chat.”
“Silver Dragon,” Archer added.
Feral was rather glad these two words had been said in context, otherwise he might just have dived for cover at the side of the road. As it was, he understood the sciurel to mean the Order of the Silver Dragon, of whom he had heard. They were renowned for being a force for law and justice in places that were out of reach of the great kingdoms and states. Their outposts and castles could be found along every border between the Freelands, Lordenor, the Southern Desert, the Northlands and even between the dozen or so volatile monarchies of the Eastern Kingdoms, places of refuge for those in trouble, and a solid reminder to those who might cause it.
They were known for being honourable, traditionalistic, aristocratic, and determinedly neutral in all conflicts between nations. While they would willingly intervene against bandits, barbarians, pirates and other local troublemakers in those places far from the centres of power, they would neither help nor hinder any military action initiated by the states and kingdoms themselves.
The Knights of the Silver Dragon ran by their own code and their own rules, and were for the most part respected for performing a useful role in the places nobody else wanted to pay any attention to. It had become something of a tradition for rich noblemen – especially those living on the fringes of any of the nations – to send gifts and donations to the knights, and sometimes even to have their children trained with them.
They were also known for being highly exclusive. Firm to their traditions, the higher ranks of the Order of the Silver Dragon contained only those whose bloodline came from the founding knights. Those with the aspiration but not the family history were politely but firmly refused. Those with the money might, at the whim of the local commander, be granted an honorary title. The courts of Lordenor and the Freelands alike all boasted their own collections of the ageing elite with a medal from the Order pinned firmly to their chest.
Looking at the sciurel’s somewhat tatty clothing and well-worn bow, Feral couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t have the sort of background the knights were looking for at all.
Archer grinned. “Trust me, I’ll manage,” he said cheerfully, apparently reading Feral's mind as he slid the arrow back into his quiver. “A little job passed to me by my old man, you might say,” he confided. “Now… well, circumstances kinda offered me the chance, know what I mean?”
Feral didn’t, but nodded anyway. He looked up as Cassanya walked towards him.
“Hey, boy, you ok?”
He nodded, then introduced her to Archer.
“Archer? That's your given name?” Cassanya asked, sniffily.
“It is,” the sciurel nodded, nudging Feral with his elbow and whispering. “Name I gave meself, any rate.”
Feral hid a smile.
“I ‘ear we’re goin’ the same way,” the sciurel continued. “Might as well stick together, wot?”
Cassanya frowned. Archer kept smiling in a friendly manner as she turned Feral around, leaning down to whisper to him. “You think that’s a good idea?”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Feral whispered back. “If nothing else, it’d make night-watch easier.”
“You’d trust him to do that?”
“He could have run and left Balthor facing that ursai on his own. He didn’t. I think he’s ok.”
The leonin straightened and looked back at Archer, whose smile was as solid as ever.
“You look like a hobo,” she said bluntly, and Feral winced. “I don’t trust hobos.”
“I ain’t a hobo,” Archer told her politely. “As for trustworthy, I've got me some business with the Knights o' the Silver Dragon. Guessin' you know they don't talk with any old riff raff. An’ you look like an ‘ousecat in a skirt,” he added.
Feral tried not to laugh.
“Housecat! All right, tree-rat, that’s it, on your way!” Cassanya snapped and pointed back up the road.
“Can’t do that,” the sciurel shook his head. “I figure I kinda owe Red ‘ere a favour,” he nodded at Feral. “Was my neck on the line when he jumped in, not your friend’s,” he indicated Balthor. “I can’t let that one slide.”
“That’s ok,” Feral said. “I don’t mind if you want to…”
“I mind, guv,” Archer cut him off. “And seein’ as we’re ‘eading the same way anyway, I intend to join you, see if there ain’t something I can help you out with. Right? Good,” he concluded, without giving anyone chance to interject. “Now,” he stood beside Feral, pulling a map out of a pouch on his belt. “I reckon we need to…”
“Wait a minute!” Cassanya objected.
“Wot?” Archer glanced up.
“Don’t I get a say in whether you join us?”
“No. I told you, tis Red I need to stick with. You don’t like me, shove off.”
Feral felt lost. He looked over to Balthor, who simply shrugged and resumed trying to straighten his sword against the bridge’s handrail.
“It’s ok,” he said to Cassanya, as she looked like she was preparing to punch the sciurel in the face. “We can at least go as far as Stonebridge…”
“Not with this mangy object!”
“Oi!” Archer pointed a finger up at her. “Now you listen, missus. I’ve been more polite than you deserve. I’ve helped your friend when ‘e needed it, and I’ve done the decent thing and offered to repay Red for helping me. If you’ve a reason for not trusting me, say so and we’ll clear it.”
“I don’t need a reason notto trust you,” Cassanya retorted. “I need a reason totrust you. You say you owe Feral a favour, well good for you, I’m glad he could help, but it’s my job to see he stays safe, and I don’t intend to be fired because of you.”
“I’ve no intention of hurtin’ the lad! Wot do you take me for?” Archer snapped back.
“I know what you looklike. You look like a…”
“He can come!” Feral said loudly, frowning at Cassanya, his patience snapping. “At least to Stonebridge, that makes sense as we’re all going that way,” he looked at Archer. “Although if you’d rather change your mind, that’s fine by me. I don’t hold you to any debt. What happened was… not quite what I expected, to be honest.”
The sciurel nodded. “Don’t matter, you took a gamble that could’ve gone very badly for you, but it worked, and it saved my arse in the process. I’ll see you right, if I can guv.”
“All right,” Feral smiled. “Thank you. Cassanya,” he looked earnestly at the leonin. “I like you a lot, and I respect your judgement, and I really don't want to annoy you, but you work for uncle Fellirion, and you’re here to help me, right?”
Cassanya nodded, surprised into silence by the outburst.
“Right, then Archer’s coming with us, and I’d like you to help me with that by being a little nicer to him, please.” So saying, the half-race strode off along the road, followed by Archer who held his map up and pointed to something on it, apparently continuing their earlier exchange.
Balthor walked up to Cassanya.
“He pulled rank on me…” she murmured, shocked.
Balthor nodded. “Yep.”
The lupari chuckled, grinning broadly.
“No, I know,” Cassanya sighed. “He’s a good kid really, just so damn trusting!”
“Well, he trusts you. He can’t be that bad a judge.”
“Thank you,” the leonin felt herself blush. “But come on, we better follow them. I hope he’s right about this guy…”
“I think he seems ok, Cassy,” Balthor smiled. “He didstick with me back there, after all.”
“True… and you!You looked like you’d have cut that gauntlet off with that ursai's hand still in it! What were you thinking?”
Balthor looked at her for a moment, then gave a slight shake of his head, his gaze falling. “I dunno. Seemed like a good idea at the time. We’d better follow,” he said, nodding along the road and walking after their companions, leaving the leonin to catch up.
Despite Cassanya’s misgivings, Archer seemed to be as trustworthy as his word, though by evening he had held them up three times by regaling Feral with stories so funny that the young half-race had to pause for breath by the side of the road. Although watched carefully by Cassanya all afternoon, the sciurel had as yet failed to arouse any suspicions beyond his scruffy appearance, and since he was obviously making Feral laugh, she felt that his company was probably tolerable.
By the time they made camp at sunset, the sciurel had also proven his worth at foraging, easily climbing among the branches of a clump of crab apple trees, throwing down several pounds worth of fruit. As if to underline his point, he produced a small jar of cinnamon from one of the pouches on his belt, and proceeded to bake the small apples over their campfire, forcing even Cassanya to admit that keeping him around wasn’t such a bad plan.
“So where areyou lot ‘eading, anyway?” Archer asked, munching on a warm apple as he reclined against the base of a tree, his fluffy tail a convenient cushion.
“Past Stonebridge, we need to get across the Skystones,” Cassanya told him.
“Devils’ Pass,” Archer gave a wry smile, nodding.
“Devils’ Pass?” Feral asked.
“Just local legend, guv. Folks used to say there was demons living in the mountains.” the sciurel shrugged. “I was gonna go that way meself, need to ‘ead north.”
“To the knights?”
“Yeah. There's a big castle up near the Northline, centre of most of their operations. Figure I should start there.”
Balthor whistled. “That’s a long walk.”
“Aye, it is,” Archer scratched an ear and looked rueful. “But needs must, eh, guv?”
“What do you want with the knights?” Feral asked, curious.
“Told you,” the sciurel shrugged. “Little job left me by my dad. What you three doing on such a long march then?” he changed the subject abruptly.
“Taking Feral home,” Cassanya said simply.
Feral tried to swallow the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. Home. He’d never even seen the place, and only once seen the man… but it was as close to home as he was going to get. At least Cassanya would be there. Over the short time he had known the big leonin, he had come to trust her a lot, and the thought that she would still be around was comforting.
“Aye?” Archer raised an eyebrow. “Guess I should’ve asked what got you out this way, then, Red?”
“It’s… a long story,” Feral looked at the grass under his boots. “I don’t really want to talk about it. Pasty?” he asked, suddenly, rummaging in his bag. “Or... well, half...” he added, realising he only had two left.
Tough, but still good. That was one of his mother's special tricks, and one Feral's companions seemed to approve of. Balthor wondered aloud where he'd bought them, and Cassanya patted his shoulder briefly when Feral answered quietly. Archer watched him across the camp fire, but said nothing – except to add his compliments.
They talked quietly for a little while about unimportant things, until Cassanya suggested they turn in. “I’d like to be up early enough to make the next town before tomorrow night,” she explained.
“Want me to take watch?” Archer offered.
Cassanya eyed him. “Can I trust you to?”
“Depends. Do you sleep naked?”
“What? No!” Cassanya drew back at the intrusive question.
“Then yes,” the sciurel smirked. Balthor cast a glance at him, raising an eyebrow, and he spread his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Seriously, I ain’t out to rob you while you sleep, all right? Get some shuteye for gawd’s sake. Red? Did I tell you the one about the organist, the pianist, and the monkey?”
Cassanya decided to just let him take the watch.