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