Zae took care of cleaning Keren's home and procuring supplies for the journey, while Keren trained Appleslayer to be a riding hound. In just a few busy days, bags were packed, and homes and infirmary were closed up. Keren secured permission to ride along with a party of crusaders patrolling the Virlych border. Zae had wanted to strike out on their own and "rough it" through the Hungry Mountains, just the two of them, but Keren had been resolutely against that plan. It was just as exciting, Zae conceded, to be riding with a squadron of five knights. It certainly made her sit up straighter in her borrowed white-and-gold military saddle.
In short order, it became obvious that Appleslayer had been trained to ride with cavalry and showed no fear of horses. A few days of Keren's expert care groomed the big white dog into a pleasant and eager mount. Apple had obeyed her, but his devotion was to the little gnome who had healed him. They rode alongside Keren and her white war steed, Eridem, like a study in forced perspective.
The pace felt easy, but productive. Every few miles, they passed guard sentries in the white-and-gold armor of Ozem or the more mundane livery of the regular Lastwall military. That meant they were still skirting Virlych, where the Whispering Tyrant lay. Each time, the knights nodded to the sentries and exchanged some meaningless pleasantry, and each time the soldiers nodded back.
For a time, they kept the Path River between themselves and Virlych. Adian, the knight in the lead, called a halt to water the horses just as it turned west and dwindled to modest tributary, easily crossed on horseback—or dogback.
"So... where are we actually headed?" Zae was glad of a chance to have a rest from the saddle and stretch her legs. "You know where Ennis was going, but that was how long ago? Can you be sure he actually arrived there?"
"He sent messages to me and Father about a year ago—a sort of peace offering, which Father rejected." Keren took a breath as if was about to say more, then shook her head and lapsed into silence.
Zae clicked her bronze lip ring against her teeth. "Mm. Then you know he got to the Worldwound. That's a start."
"Maybe." Keren sounded surprisingly noncommittal.
"Are you afraid that he's dead, too?" Zae asked.
"I've heard tales of the Worldwound. Some of the strongest, bravest crusaders I've known have come back limp and skittish as week-old cats, jumping at their own shadows and dreading the things they see behind their eyelids in the dark. Am I afraid he's dead? No. It'd be a kindness to him if he is."
"Well, soon we'll have those stories," Zae said.
Keren shook her head and sighed. "Is this all so exciting to you? As much as you yearn for the new, I would think you'd have seen the world twice over by now."
Zae narrowed her eyes, peering past the company of knights and off toward Gallowspire. She wondered what the ruins looked like, and how sturdy the locks on the Tyrant's prison really were. "Oh, I certainly hope I never get to the point where I've seen the world twice over. Then there'd be nothing new to see. You know, I've never even been to the Eye of Abendego."
Keren gave her a sidewise glance. "Why would you want to go there?"
Zae shrugged. "To be honest, I'm not even sure what it is. I've just heard people say it and think it's an excellently fun word. Abendego!" Appleslayer perked his ears and barked.
"Good boy," Zae said, but then the bark turned into a whine and a low growl.
Adian and Marisol, a sorceress in white and gold leather, were already mounted again. "The horses sense it, too," Adian said quietly, and all the soldiers drew their weapons. Zae traced a finger around the tooled gear she wore at her throat.
Unfolding from the barren ground were five beige figures—skeletons, Zae realized, their bones the color of the dirt, slumbering at the base of the mountains that led to the Tyrant's tomb.
Keren swung herself up onto Eridem, but Zae remained on foot with the other knights. She drew her hammer from her belt and whispered a prayer to Brigh. Just as a collection of gears with no motor shouldn't run, a skeleton was a collection of bones with no heart or mind. If it did have a mind, Zae thought, it would have the good sense to remain a motionless pile of parts... especially in the presence of six holy crusaders.
A few dirty scraps of cloth and broken weapons were all that signified the people the skeletons might have been in life. They moved as one but with no particular group mind, only individual focus on the same goal. The knights, on the contrary, were skilled at group tactics. With just a few hand signals, they took to a practiced formation, each focusing on a specific enemy.
Zae mostly healed from her shopfront infirmary in town—healing on the front lines was an honor usually reserved for the paladins and battle clerics of Iomedae and other gods—so the knights' fluid battle tactics were a foreign and beautiful dance to her. It made her proud to see Keren a seamless cog in the crusaders' workings, singling out a skeleton with a shouted challenge and lopping half of it away with her first charge. Zae called upon Brigh's holy light, and a wave of energy blasted the skeleton, overpowering the dark force that animated it.
The gnome let out a gleeful shout, and two of the other skeletons altered their approach, turning toward the sound of her voice.
"Oops," she muttered, but Adian and the sorceress were already upon them, and both were slain before they could reach her. Zae shot Adian an apologetic look when he thundered by on his mount, preparing for another pass at one of the remaining foes, but secretly she was disappointed to have lost her chance to strike again. By the time she was in range of Keren's skeletal target, it was legless and almost sad, flailing its arms and fruitlessly clacking its jaw. She brought her holy light down upon it, just to make the noise stop.
A good thing about fighting skeletons, it turned out, was that they made for relatively bloodless battle. Apple paced around Zae, whimpering. At first she thought he had somehow been injured, but when she stopped him and ran her hands over his coat, she realized his tail was wagging expectantly.
"Okay, boy, go ahead."
He darted into the rubble that had been their attackers. The dog shifted bones with his muzzle, finally picking out a relatively whole forearm. He trotted back proudly with it and settled down at Zae's feet to gnaw.
"We're going into Witchgate Forest, but we can part ways at the tree line and you can skirt around, if you'd like," Marisol said. "Don't get too sure of yourselves, though. Only reason we took out five so fast is that we outnumbered them. It'll be a different game when it's only the two of you."
Zae and Keren exchanged a look, and Zae dipped her head in a slight, canted nod. It was Keren's quest, so the choice was hers.
Keren turned her palm up, tracing the Vigilant's shield marked there with her other hand, the way she did when she was of two minds about something. "It's important for me to get to the Worldwound, but I've sworn oaths to protect these lands. Even though I haven't been assigned with this patrol, I want to stay and honor my oath."
Zae's chest swelled with pride. She turned over her own palm, which bore a similar shield. She only had the one mark, proclaiming her an oathbound citizen of Lastwall; Keren and the others had Iomedae's symbol on their other palms, the sunburst sword signifying that they were also sworn defenders.
Witchgate Forest itself was something of a letdown. Zae saw cultists and orcs, skeletons and shambling, oozing things—all of which she and the knights duly put to rest—but no witches and no gates. When she asked if they might detour past one of the infamous gates, the request was soundly denied.
Though it was early morning, the forest was dark and foreboding, with only the occasional shaft of dusty light peering through the branches. "Hangman Trees over there," Adian said, pointing with his drawn longsword. He led the company off the well-groomed path and onto a side path that had initially looked less inviting.
"I suppose you patrol through here enough to know the landmarks," Zae said to Marisol.
"Indeed. We've tried to take the grove out, but they just grow back. Easier to avoid them, now."
"That's why no one wants to divert past a witchgate?" she surmised, and was pleased with herself when Marisol nodded.
"No sense weakening ourselves on the flora when we should be saving our resources for real threats."
It made sense. Zae was grudgingly glad to have experienced guides, even if it meant fewer chances to sightsee. She was still just a bit grumbly about not having seen a witch or a gate, and she resolved to make up for it by cantering toward the first wall she should happen to see in Canterwall.
They made camp in the forest that night, with soldiers standing guard against the shriekings and moanings. It was oddly disappointing to pass out of the forest the next day and into the relative safety of the fertile plains. They would part ways with their escort and ride north through farmland and rolling hills to the Vistear River, while the crusaders continued their patrol along the northern Virlych border.
The knights clasped hands with Keren, one by one, and then, to Zae's surprise, Adian extended his hand to her. She clasped it, shield to shield, and that seemed to please him; the others followed, exchanging handclasps and warm words of parting.
"Nice to see you getting along with my friends so well," Keren teased her as they rode away.
"I don't know... it's a big step for us," Zae said, playing along. "First we get a dog, then I meet your friends... Maybe I'll get to meet your family next?"
Keren laughed, her shoulders visibly releasing tension. "That's the plan."
Gently but more seriously, Zae asked, "So, where do we start? That's a long, creepy border up there."
Keren touched her fingers to her key medallion. "I was thinking of volunteering at the first outpost we come across once we hit the front lines, and then asking around."
Zae didn't realize her lip ring was clicking against her teeth until Keren gave her the stern "stop that" look. "I was just thinking... We've got a ride up a river between now and then, right? How long do you think that'll take?"
Keren shrugged her nearer shoulder. "I don't know. I've never done it. A couple of days? Why?"
Zae rubbed her hands together. "Give me a couple of hours to poke around for supplies in the next town, and I should have something useful for you by the time we disembark."
Keren eyed her warily. "It's not going to be something that explodes, is it?"
Zae straightened in the saddle and responded with a haughty sniff. "Presumptions! Cruel racial presumptions! When have you ever seen anything explode because of me?"
Keren tilted her head in thought. If Zae squinted, she could almost picture Eridem's rhythmic hoofbeats as the ticking of gears turning in Keren's mind.
"Dog guts all over my kitchen?" she ventured.
Zae patted Appleslayer's neck. "Don't listen to her. Your guts never left your body."
"Well, there was that one time when you tried to cook me dinner..."
Zae huffed, trying to hide her grin by lifting her chin and looking away in high dudgeon. "Pfff. Cheater. You know very well that's not the kind of explosion I meant!"
Coming Next Week: Up a river toward demons and death in Chapter Three of Gabrielle Harbowy's "Inheritance"!
Gabrielle Harbowy is an editor for such SF publishers as Pyr, Seven Realms Publishing, and Dragon Moon Press, as well as co-editor of the When the Hero Comes Home anthology series with Ed Greenwood. Her short fiction has been a finalist for the Parsec award, and has appeared in such anthologies as The Beast Within 2, Metastasis, Cthulhurotica, and more. For more information, visit gabrielle-edits.com.
Illustration by Kelly Perry