Chapter twenty five
For the next week Willbrand found himself in an unfamiliar position among the miners of Cen Findol, a position he never dreamed he would obtain, that of hero. Whatever revulsion the young noble might have felt about the attack was certainly not shared by any of the miners. To them it had been a rousing success. In the week following the raid there was not a single attack by the dog men. They didnít disappear entirely, Willbrand and the others could still see them lurking in the forest, but they kept their distance. The plan had worked better than Willbrand had imagined.
One would think that under these circumstances conditions would have improved for Willbrand. One would think that things would have gone smoothly for the young couple from then on.
Of course, one would be wrong.
The first problem was that Willbrand had been too successful for his own good. The miners really did think of him as a hero from then on, and this did not sit well with the Warden.
The Warden was the man in charge. He always had been. He demanded complete loyalty at all times from all of the miners and would brook no competition, and it soon became obvious to him that Willbrandís new found popularity was a threat to that. The Warden hadnít really expected Willbrand to succeed, and even if he did, certainly not so spectacularly. When Willbrand had proposed it he had looked at the plan as a no lose situation. The kid would most likely get himself killed and heíd be out of the Wardenís hair, and if he happened to take a few of dog men with him so much the better. He had never expected Willbrandís plan to work so well. The miners were now looking to Willbrand as a leader and there could be only one leader here. The only reason the boy was around was to use his sword and fighting skill to stave off the dog men. Well, the beasts hadnít attacked since the raid had taken place. Perhaps they would not bother the miners again. Willbrand was a victim of his own success. Now that the dog men were no longer harassing them, he was no longer needed.
The second problem was that Brant started taking an unhealthy interest in Merigan. Perhaps it should not have come as any surprise that one or more of the miners would start to look at Merigan in that way. There were no other women at the mine, had never been, and Merigan was young and fair to look upon. None of the men had laid eyes on a woman since before they arrived here, and for some of them that had been years ago. Under those circumstances it should have come as no surprise at all that some tension developed revolving around her. In spite of that neither of the two young people saw what was happening. Though Merigan was worldly and Willbrand becoming so they were still both young and naÔve about such matters.
So Merigan did not think the worst when Brant starting hanging out around her, coming to the kitchen when she was preparing food and the other men were in the mine, tying to make small talk. She wasnít so blind as to think nothing was going on at all, that it was perfectly innocent. She wasnít that naÔve. Even at fifteen she knew how to make it clear to a man his attention was unwanted. With Ktan usually hovering over her no one had been foolish enough to press their case. Brant showed an interest in her, she made it clear that this would not be reciprocated, and she thought that would be the end of it.
However, for the first time in her life Ktan was not there for her. When Brant continued to make advances after she made it clear she wasnít interested she didnít know what to do. She thought to tell Willbrand but she didnít. She had a certain pride and thought she could handle it herself. Besides, Willbrand had enough things to worry about.
If she had told him, he might have been more wary of the coming events and perhaps it would have saved her some grief.
The Warden was not unaware of Brantís interest in Merigan. In fact, he felt a stirring of interest himself, and he could tell a lot of the other men felt the same way. But beyond that she was useful to him. She was a good cook, much better than any of the men, and the miners appreciated it. They would be resupplied soon, and the Warden knew it was the young coupleís intention to leave at that time. The Warden knew the men would not be very happy seeing such a good cook and pretty face leave them. It would be much better for their morale if she stayed.
It would be much better; he decided four days before the supply convoy was to arrive, if the girl stayed and the boy were somehow gotten rid of. And so the plot was hatched.
There were no roads in this area. The convoy that brought their supplies made its way up the river from Baram on a barge similar to the oneís that hauled goods between Keesa and the southern cities. Far down the valley below the mine there was a crude wharf on the river where the barge tied up. Willbrand had not seen it, had not gone down into the valley, for it was no place the men needed to go except when one of the barges arrived. That very day the Warden announced that Willbrand needed to go down there to give the wharf an inspection and make sure everything was in order for when the boat arrived. Since the dog men seemed to be less of a threat these days, only one man would accompany him. That man would be Brant.
Suffice it to say that Willbrand was less than thrilled when informed of this plan. The dog men might be cowed yes but they were not defeated. It seemed to him that sending out just two men might be too tempting a target for them to pass up. He didnít see why the Warden didnít send more.
The Warden dismissed this, telling the young noble he was overestimating the creatures, that his attack had taken all the fight out of them, and that it would not be a problem. No other men were necessary. He needed the others to work in the mine, for the ore was to be picked up in a few days and they were behind schedule. He couldnít spare anyone else and that was the end of it.
Not only was Willbrand unhappy with only the two of them going but he was also unhappy with the choice of companion. He had not cared for Brant from the moment they met and the man had done nothing in the intervening time to change that opinion. He had a feeling, however, that the chances of the Warden agreeing to send someone else were even less likely than his getting more men. The Warden obviously had a purpose in sending Brant and Willbrand could only assume, as usual, it was to keep an eye on him. He had no inkling of how the Warden felt about him, or of Brantís interest in Merigan. He had no clue that in this he was completely wrong, and that the Warden and Brant had a much darker plan in mind.
The Warden had given Brant the simple instructions to get rid of Willbrand. Now as they stood outside the gates of the fort Brant contemplated exactly how this goal could be achieved. When Willbrand had first showed up here Brant had thought he would have little trouble taking the boy in a fight. Since then he had seen Willbrandís skill with a sword and realized he had underestimated the kidís ability. Though Willbrand was young he was quite accomplished with his weapon and Brant now doubted he could best his companion in a straight up battle.
Which, of course, made his mission more difficult. More difficult, but not impossible. What couldnít be accomplished by force could be done using subterfuge and surprise. Willbrand might be an accomplished fighter for his age but he was still young and gullible. Brent didnít think heíd have too much trouble dispatching his companion.
ďSo, where to?Ē Willbrand questioned.
ďDown the hill,Ē Brant replied. ďGo on, Iíll be right behind you.Ē
Willbrand hesitated a moment at that, for it seemed to him that Brant must have gone this way before, must have been down to the wharf while he hadnít. Didnít it make more sense for the man who knew the way to lead?
ďI donít know where we are going,Ē he said slowly.
"I told ya, down the hill,Ē Brant replied curtly.
Willbrand looked at Brant for a moment but the man just glared at him, appearing quite similar to a miniature version of the Warden. It was quite apparent that Brant wanted him to go first and this made him suspicious for he could see no good reason for it. He stood there for a moment longer, then shrugged and started down the hill. He hadnít taken more than a few steps, however, when his hand came down and withdrew his sword from its sheath.
Brant halted, lifting his head and looking around, but he saw none of the dog men nearby.
ďWhy did you draw your weapon?Ē he questioned.
Willbrand stopped as well and turned his head to look back.
ďThere are only two of us,Ē he replied. ďI think we make an especially tempting target for the dog men. I donít want to be caught unawares.Ē
He turned and continued walking.
After a moment Brant followed, a frown creasing his brow.
ďThe dog men havenít troubled us since the raid,Ē he pointed out. ďI donít see any of them around.Ē
Willbrand made no reply to this, and his sword remained in his hand.
Brant cursed under his breath. He realized he had made a mistake by insisting that Willbrand go first. He wasnít quite as naÔve as Brant had thought and his suspicions had obviously been aroused. That was a bad thing for Brant. If the boy was wary of him, it would make it that much harder to do his job.
Much to Brantís chagrin, not only did Willbrandís sword remain in his hand but he also kept glancing around in all directions, including behind him Brant could not help but notice, every few steps. Brant had to wonder if he was looking around for any sign of the dog beasts or keeping on eye on the man behind him.
Whatever the real reason it made sneaking up on him and cracking his skull open a dicey proposition, something that Brant was loath to attempt. Brant began to feel a little bit nervous at this point. The Warden had told him to dispose of the boy, and he had never failed the manís orders, which was the main reason he held the position he held among the men. Brant had seen, however, what the Warden could and would do to people who failed him. Dying on the boyís blade was a better option to him than feeling the Wardenís wrath.
Still, they had a long way to go down to the river and back. The boy couldnít keep up his guard the entire way, could he? Somewhere along the line Brant was certain he would be given the opportunity to strike. It was just a matter of waiting and being patient.
His plan had been to kill Willbrand quickly. His plan had been to wait until they were out of sight of the fort and finish the kid off as fast as possible. He wasnít happy with the delay, especially when he spotted one of the dog men shadowing them in the trees to their left. He was well aware it was only him and the kid, and if he killed his companion he would have to make his way back to the fort alone, easy prey for a group of dog men should they gather. He didnít want to be any farther from the fort than he absolutely needed to be.
The kid was making it difficult, but it didnít seem there was a lot he could do about it. He continued to weigh the options as they made their way down the slope. The fort was far behind now and they could see the river clearly below, though it was still far away. Slowly a new plan started to take shape in Brantís mind. It was risky, but seemed less risky then anything else he could come up with. Perhaps he didnít have to kill the kid after all.
Ahead of them the ground fell away into nothingness and Willbrand turned to the left, heading toward a wide ledge that seemed to promise the best chance of continuing downward without plummeting, but Brant stopped him.
ďThis way,Ē he announced. He strode forward, taking the lead, seemingly unconcerned if he was in front or behind Willbrand anymore. If this eased the kidís wariness of him, he thought, so much the better.
Willbrand watched Brant for a moment, then with a shrug started to follow. It looked as if the man was heading right for the cliff in front of them.
As it turned out, this was true. Brant came to a halt between two trees right at the edge of the precipice. As Willbrand came up beside him he saw a rope ladder dangling down the cliff face, anchored to one of the trees. The rope ladder dropped down many arm lengths to the bottom of the cliff. A fall from here would certainly be fatal.
ďWe have to go down this?Ē Willbrand said slowly.
Willbrand slowly surveyed the scene in front of him. The river wasnít that far away now, down at the bottom of the cliff. He could even see the wharf from here where the boat tied up.
ďThereís no other way down?Ē he asked.
ďThere is,Ē Brant replied. ďWe canít always get supplies up this ladder. But to go around takes much longer, a good quarter dayís travel. There are only two of us here and the dog men are still out there.Ē He jerked his head in the direction of the dog beast that was shadowing them. ďWeíre in a hurry and we arenít carrying any supplies. This way is much faster.Ē
Willbrand nodded slowly. It made sense. Still, he neither liked nor trusted Brant, and was certain the feelings were mutual. He didnít know if the man had evil intentions toward him but he certainly wasnít going to rule them out. He would have to sheath his sword to climb down the ladder. If Brant was going to pull something, this seemed like the perfect place to do it.
ďLetís go,Ē Brant stated and to Willbrandís surprise, immediately started down the ladder.
Willbrand had expected Brant to tell him to go first. Brant would obviously have had the advantage if Willbrand sheathed his sword and started down ahead of his companion. He hadnít done that, however. He hadnít told Willbrand to go ahead of him; he hadnít even waited for the young noble to sheath his sword. He hadnít taken advantage of any of the obvious opportunities inherent in the situation.
Perhaps he was letting his imagination run away with itself, Willbrand thought as the started down the ladder himself.
All these thoughts did of course occur to Brant. After careful consideration, however, he decided to discard the idea of trying to kill the kid here. He knew he had aroused Willbrandís suspicions. If he had told the kid to go down the ladder before him he just would have reinforced that. The kid apparently wasnít a total fool, he would give him that. He had a feeling if he told Willbrand to go first the kid would keep a close eye on him, close enough that he might not be able to strike safely. If there were no other options he would have indeed made the attempt here, but he thought he had a better idea.
So Brant went down the ladder first, as if he didnít have a care in the world, hoping this action would help further lull any suspicions Willbrand might have about him and in this he was absolutely correct.
They reached the bottom of the ladder without incident. Willbrand looked back up as he stepped back onto solid ground. The ladder seemed to him to be a weak link, something he would exploit if he were an enemy. The ladder was made of simple rope, tied to a tree at the top and unguarded. It would be a simple matter to cut or destroy it and then he and Brant would have to go all the way around to get back up to the top. That would probably leave the dog men plenty of time to marshal their forces and overwhelm the two of them. He had been so concerned about what Brant might do; he had nearly forgotten about the dog beasts. They were the real enemy after all.
Though the ladder appeared to be a ripe target, there didnít seem to be much he could do about it. It had obviously been here a long time, he could tell just by looking at it. It looked worn and frayed though still sturdy, and the color had been leeched out of it by the elements so now it was nearly white. Brant had obviously been this way before. The rope might make a tempting target but it appeared the dog men had never taken advantage of that fact. With their shortened fingers and claws, he didnít think theyíd be able to climb. Perhaps they didnít realize just how useful the ladder was to the miners.
Then again, maybe they were just waiting for the right momentÖ
With a shrug Willbrand turned away from the ladder. Brant had already moved off, heading toward the river, apparently oblivious to his concerns. There wasnít anything he could do about it anyway. He would just have to trust to luck.
From where they stood now the river was only a short distance away. Willbrand could see it quite plainly. There were few trees here at the base of the cliff. The ground was rocky and uneven and there was little plant growth, the blue of the river a sharp contrast to the tans and browns of the rocks around them. On one side of them stood the cliff face they had just descended. On the other side of the river the land rose up just as sharply. They stood now at the very bottom of a deep gorge. Except for the ladder they had descended, and the river of course, Willbrand could see no way out.
He liked this less and less with every step they took.
Just a short distance upstream the gorge was narrower still, and steeper, the water flowing swiftly, making it impassible to watercraft. Here, however, the gorge widened and the river flowed passively, itís current seemingly in no rush on its journey downriver. A wooden platform perhaps ten paces square jutted out into the water nearby, obviously their destination.
The wharf wasnít the only man made object there. A ramshackle shed stood not far from it, the wood of its walls cracked and faded by time. Willbrand could only assume it was used to store supplies temporarily before they could be brought up to the fort.
Brant was already out on the platform, checking the ropes hung from stout wooden posts that stood at the corners of the wharf, obviously used to tie up any watercraft that might find their way here. He turned and nodded his head toward the shed as Willbrand stepped onto the platform himself.
ďTake a look in there,Ē he said. ďMake sure everythingís in order.Ē
With a shrug Willbrand turned to obey, thinking that since he had no idea what the shed contained, he would hardly be able to tell if everything was in order.
Willbrand hesitated when he reached the door, secured by a simple latch. He had sheathed his sword to climb down the ladder but now he withdrew it again. He couldnít see inside the shed. Who knew what was in there.
Brantís head lifted at the sound of Willbrandís sword being removed from its sheath. He gave the young noble a look, then, apparently satisfied that there was no danger, went back to whatever it was he was doing.
Willbrand really didnít care if Brant thought there was any cause for concern or not. Though his fears that Brant might be up to something treacherous had eased, he still didnít think the man was all that concerned about his welfare. If the dog beasts attacked, he didnít think Brant would have any qualms about running off to save himself even if it meant sacrificing his companion.
Still, looking at it logically it didnít seem Willbrand had too much reason to suspect a horde of dog men to emerge when he opened the door. It was latched from the outside, and if they were in there, how did they get in? Sure the shed was run down and it wouldnít surprise him at all if there was a gaping hole in the back that the dog men could slip through but by the same token the many cracks and crevices he could see from the front already afforded him a view of the inside that left little room for any of the dog beasts to conceal themselves.
Sword ready, just in case, he pulled the door open. It protested with an irritating creak. The shed was small, barely larger than a closet. Rickety shelves lined the back wall, most of them empty. A shovel stood in one corner, next to a large barrel. Other than that, the shack appeared to be empty. He looked around carefully but could see nothing else. There was no hole large enough in the walls for a dog man to slip through and most certainly none of them hiding anywhere inside.
He turned to convey this information to Brant, but then stopped, looking at the wharf.
It was empty.
He started slowly forward. He had only turned his back for a short time, only long enough to look in the shed. There was no place for Brant to pass out of his view on the wharf. Where had he gone?
He stepped over to the edge of the wharf, looking at the river beyond. The water looked calm and untroubled. He couldnít have fallen in, could he?
Willbrand lifted his head and looked around, about to call out his companions name when he suddenly spotted him, not in the water, not on the rocks nearby, but instead scrambling up the ladder just as fast as he could go.
ďBrant!Ē Willbrand shouted.
What the hell was he doing? For a moment Willbrand looked around, sword ready, searching for a reason for Brantís actions, expecting to see a horde of dog men emerging from the rocks around him, but there was nothing. There was no sign of the dog beasts, not even the one that was shadowing them earlier. All was quiet.
And suddenly all the suspicions that Willbrand had felt at the beginning of the journey about his companion suddenly flooded back to him.
ďBrant!Ē he shouted again, and this time took off after the man.
Brant didnít reply, didnít even look back, merely continued scrambling up the ladder. By now he was almost at the top.
Willbrand wasnít exactly sure what Brant was up to but he had a feeling he had better reach that ladder before Brant ascended to the top.
He came very close. He was only a dozen or so paces away from the ladder when Brant pulled himself to the top of the cliff. He spun around then, reaching down and grabbing hold of the ladder and with a curse Willbrand realized what the manís intentions where.
With a jerk Brant started hauling the ladder up.
Willbrand raced forward, covering the last distance between himself and the now rising ladder in one great leap, his hand reaching up, straining to seize the bottom rung before it was lifted beyond his grasp.
For a moment the thought he was going to reach it. He even felt his fingers brush against the hemp, but he could not find purchase, and a moment later he fell to the ground, almost stumbling from the effort, the ladder continuing to rise above his head, hopelessly out of reach a moment later.
ďBrant!Ē he yelled once again, more out of frustration this time than because he thought the man would listen to him. It was plain now that his suspicions about Brant had been correct all along. This must have been his plan the whole time and with a sinking feeling Willbrand realized he had walked right into it. The ladder was gone completely now, he could see neither it nor any sign of Brant up at the top of the cliff. Willbrand was certain the man was making his way back to the fort at this very moment. Once there it would be a simple matter for him to claim that his companion had been killed. No one would question it. They had all expected him to die long before now, hadnít they?
For a long time he just stood there, staring up at the sheer wall of the cliff in front of him, frustration and rage mixing within him.
Had the Warden been in on this? It seemed likely. He was the one, after all, whose idea it had been for this little excursion. He was the one who had said only Willbrand and Brant need go. He must have know, had probably told Brant exactly what to do. Willbrand felt rage building inside him. He wanted to kill Brant, and the Warden too if he was in on this. And that was exactly what he would do, he promised himself, should he run into them again.
And Merigan, what about Merigan? What would Brant tell them when he got back? That Willbrand was dead, of course. What else could he say, what other reason could he have for leaving, for doing what he had done? He obviously expected the dog men to finish Willbrand off long before he got back to the fort, and considering the circumstances, that seemed the likely outcome.
What would Merigan do? How would she react? It tied his stomach in knots to think what she would go through. Would she believe them? Would she try to find him? That didnít seem likely. She didnít know the way, didnít know where they had gone except that it was down by the river. He didnít think she could find him even if she looked, and doing so would be incredibly dangerous for her. He had a feeling no one would be willing to accompany her on such an undertaking, even if she told the others.
Anger, frustration, fear. He felt them all boiling inside him. If Brant were standing right in front of him now he knew exactly what he would do to the man, but he wasnít. Anger wasnít going to help right now. He couldnít get at Brant unless he got back, and that, he realized, was going to be no easy proposition.
He took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. If he was going to survive at all, he was going to have to keep a cool head.
He inspected the cliff face in front of him. It was sheer, almost vertical. He could see few places for his hands to find purchase. There were no mountains near Crotasia. He had no training scaling such a thing.
He turned away from the cliff, looking first northeast, downstream. The wall of the gorge remained vertical for as far as he could see. Things looked the same when he turned in the opposite direction, upstream. He knew there was another way back to the fort. Brant had mentioned it. The problem, of course, was that Brent had not mentioned where that path lay. If Willbrand picked the wrong direction he could go forÖwell, he wasnít sure how long. Until the dog men came for him, he supposed, but then again, that could happen in either direction, now couldnít it?
Brant would tell them all he was dead, of that he was certain. It was obviously on the Wardenís orders. He might even tell the man he killed Willbrand himself. If he could make it back to the fort, if he could survive that long, Brant and the Wardenís plans would both be in tatters.
Of course, that was a big if. He didnít know the way back. He didnít know which direction to go, that was, if either direction at all didnít lead to certain death.
He realized he was just wasting time, and that wasnít something he had a lot of. He had seen at least one dog man on the way here. They were never very far away. When they realized he was alone, an easy target, he was sure theyíd waste no time in marshaling their forces. The longer he stood here the more time he was giving them. Right or wrong, he had to get started.
Upstream. The fort was uphill, upstream was uphill, and therefore upstream was closer to the fort. Perhaps this logic was faulty, but he had nothing better to go on. A grim look of determination set on his face, he made his way southwest.
There was no sign of the dog men and Willbrand occupied his time thinking of just what he was going to do once he made it back to the fort. He could well imagine the shocked look on both Brant and the Wardenís face when he strolled casually in after they were so certain they had left him for dead. He could imagine them cowering from his wrath, not daring to lift a weapon against him. Or perhaps they would try to slay him through treachery, the Warden trying to reason with him while Brant slithered close enough to try to strike. But he wouldnít fall for that. He could see it now, spinning around at the very last moment to impale Brant with his sword a spit second before the man could strike. Or perhaps the other men would help him. He was a hero to them now, after all. Perhaps after they realized the treachery of the Warden and Brant they would rise up against them, perhaps he wouldnít even have to lift a finger himself. Or perhaps he could sneak in in the dead of night and spirit Merigan away to safety without them even being aware he was there.
All these fantasies passed through his mind as he walked, but the more he thought about it the more somber he became. He didnít think any of it would be that easy. He was starting to think that making it back to the fort with his skin intact might be just the beginning of his problems.
Neither the Warden nor Brant might be trained in conventional fighting but that didnít mean they couldnít be formidable enemies. The Warden was nearly twice Willbrandís size, and though Brantís legs were spindly he had the upper arms of a gorilla. Fighting both of them together, victory was by no means certain. Assuming he could make it back how would they react when they saw he was alive? The Warden had obviously wanted to get rid of Willbrand without a lot of questions asked, hadnít wanted Brant to kill him right in front of the other men. If he came back, however, what other choice would they have? After this, somehow he didnít think the Warden would let him survive, no matter what he had to do in front of the other men. Even if they accepted him back, he couldnít possibly trust the man not to try something like this again. No, it seemed to him a confrontation was inevitable.
And what of the men? It was true; he really was a hero to many of them now. How would they react if the Warden or Brant tried to kill him right in front of them? He wasnít sure but he didnít think he could depend on their help. The Warden was an intimidating man, used to getting his way. They had seen what happened to people who crossed him. Most of them had been under his charge for years now and they knew better than to try to stand up to him. For all he knew the Warden might even demand the other men help in killing him. He wasnít sure they would obey but he couldnít completely discount it either, at least for some of them. It would be difficult enough fighting the Warden and Brant, if any of the others weighed in on his opponents side he wouldnít stand a chance.
If only Merigan were with him they could just head off into the wilderness and forget all about the Warden and Brant and the fort. At this point taking his chances with the dog men was starting to look like his best option. He cursed himself for not leaving the day after they had arrived like he had planned. He should have known it would come to this. He knew Brant didnít care for him, for whatever reason. He should have seen something like this coming, should have left long ago and taken their chances in the wilderness. They would have been no worse off than they had before they found the place.
It was too late for that now, of course. He could curse himself all he wanted and it wouldnít do a bit of good. He had to get back; he had to get Merigan out of there. The thought of her alone in that nest of vipers felt like a dagger in his heart. He wasnít completely oblivious. He had seen the looks some of the men had given her. If they so much as laid a hand on herÖ
They had one advantage at least. The men there knew nothing of Meriganís unique gift. He had a feeling if one of them did try to lay a hand on her, they would get a lot more than they bargained for.
Still he couldnít depend on that. Meriganís talents were too fickle. They didnít always work, and when they did it was only for a short time and left her drained. Sometimes they didnít even work at all and if that were the case she would he helpless.
He didnít want to think about that. He had only seen one man who had been totally unaffected, the man who had been following them, so it seemed that such a circumstance was rare. Even so, just thinking about Merigan and what she must be going through made him that much more determined to get to the fort alive and as quickly as possible.
Alive would remain to be seen, but it soon became apparent that as quickly as possible would not be near as quick as he had hoped. As he progressed the river turned in a more southerly direction and the incline became more pronounced. The gorge narrowed and the noise of the current in the river had turned slowly from a soft murmur to a low rumble. Though he could see no whitewater yet, the current was now strong and the river would have been difficult to cross.
Not that he had any intention of doing so. The fort was on this side so that was not a concern. In fact, he wasnít paying any attention at all to the river and instead kept his eyes on the cliff walls to his left, craning his neck to look up, to see if there were any chance at all of scaling up to the top, any chance of getting out of here and on his way back.
If anything, however, the walls seemed ever higher and steeper than before. His progress was slow. The ground was rocky and broken up and did not lend itself to speedy travel. He wasnít sure how long he went on, but it seemed like hours, and still he could find no way up the cliff face. As time went on his concerns increased. How long would he have to go on like this? If this was the right way, he was certain he should have reached a path up by now. Would he have to retrace his steps? That would take him all day.
He looked up. He could only see a narrow portion of the sky now. The cliffs on both sides had continued to close in. The rumble of the river had increased to a roar, blanketing out all other sounds. It was a torrent now, the water racing down the hill. He could feel the wetness of the spray that was tossed up as it hit the rocks. The sun was no longer in view, hadnít been for quite some time. The sky was clear of clouds and was fading to a pinkish red off to the west. Though he couldnít see the sun he could tell it was starting to drop toward the horizon. If he didnít find a way out of here soon he wouldnít make it back before nightfall regardless of whether he had to turn around or not.
Seeing how late it was just increased his desperation, which he had to admit was edging a lot closer to panic than he would like. He had to get out of here, and he had to get out of here soon.
He was inspecting the cliff face closely now as he progressed, searching for any sign of a possible way up, gauging the handholds that he could see, deciding whether he would have a chance of climbing. He even started up one time, working his way slowly up the wall, but he didnít get far before he could find no more ledges large enough to support him. Under ordinary circumstances he wouldnít have attempted even that but desperate times called of desperate measures. He would try to scale the wall if he thought he could do it, but he couldnít risk falling either, that would finish him off for sure. He would only try it if he was certain he could make it.
Or unless he got really really desperate.
It was shortly after that the howl of one of the dog men echoed through the gorge around him. The way the sound echoed he couldnít really tell which direction it had come from. He stopped short, staring, but saw no sign of the beasts. Still, it had sounded close.
He pushed onward. Now there was no denying the desperation he felt. He had been walking for hours, yet seemed no closer to his goal of getting out of this gorge. The dog men where near, he was certain it wouldnít be long before they came down upon him. He was quickly running out of time.
As he continued, however, things seemed to just go from bad to worse. The gorge continued to narrow, the cliff face closing in on the river, until now there was barely room for him to walk, caught between the cliff and the water. He was walking right on the edge of the river, sometimes even having to step into it. The rocks here were slippery, and made it impossible to proceed at more than a slow walk. This couldnít be the way. He had to have picked the wrong direction. It would have been impossible for them to bring supplies this way.
But it was too late to turn back. If he turned around now it would take him all night to get back. Even if this wasnít the way they took the supplies, there still had to be a way out. The gorge couldnít go on forever, now could it?
As it turned out, that assumption was true. The gorge turned more southerly still, and as he followed it the roar of the water increased to the thunderous rumble. Looking ahead he saw the reason for that. The gorge ended in front of him, the water cascading down the cliff face from high above. He stopped, staring, his mouth open. The cliffs above seemed to stare back at him, mocking him. He could see no way out.
No way out. He felt something akin to panic at that realization. He had thought the cliffs would lessen eventually, he had thought that if he kept going it was just a matter of time before he reached a point where the gorge ended or he could climb out of it. He had thought as long as there was a river he would have a path to follow.
He hadnít expected to run into a waterfall.
There had to be a way up. There just had to be. All this way, all this way he had comeÖ for nothing? It would take him all night to get back now. He had walked for hours. If he had to go back, even if he survived, who knew what will have happened to Merigan by the time he made it back to the fort.
Feeling despair making a valiant effort to overwhelm him he walked slowly forward, staring up at the cliffs that now practically surrounded him, desperately searching for even the unlikeliest path up to the top. The cliffs were as sheer as ever, like walls all around him. Looking closely he could see no way to climb up.
Except perhaps in one spotÖ
The river had undermined the cliff just to the left of the waterfall, causing a portion of the cliff face to collapse, leaving a pile of rocks and rubble that climbed almost half way up the gorge.
He walked slowly forward, not daring to let himself have hope. Half way up was no better than at the bottom if he couldnít get up the rest of the way.
The sun was setting, what little light reached the bottom of the gorge was fading rapidly. The cliff face was in deep shadow. He couldnít see from down here whether he would be able to climb to the top.
He started climbing, making his way up the slope. Just as he suspected, it was easy at first. The pile of rocks from the collapse made climbing simple. He kept his eyes on the cliff face above him as he ascended. The shadows there slowly resolved themselves into concrete objects. The cliff had been gouged out where it had collapsed, forming a crevice in the wall. Inside the crevice was jagged and irregular, and appeared to have plenty of handholds he could use to climb to the top.
His hope surging, he increased his speed. Almost as soon as he did so his foot slipped on the loose rocks in the pile of rubble he was climbing. He fell to one knee, sending a shower of rocks tumbling down the slope. Fortunately it was no worse than that, and the slide didnít take anymore of the cliff along with it. He had a scrapped knee and the sound of the rocks might have given him away, but the entire cliff didnít collapse, he could still get to the top, and he knew the dog men were about. He had seen them before. They probably already knew where he was so the sound of the rockslide hadnít hurt him much, or so he hoped. In any case he wasnít going to let himself worry about that right now. Even if he made it up the cliff he still had to get back to the fort while avoiding the dog men. He still had to confront the Warden and Brant, still had to get Merigan out of there. Then he would have to worry about the dog men again as they made their escape, and they still didnít know where they were, didnít know how to get to Zalan. His litany of problems seemed never ending. If he dwelt on that he would just end up cowering in a corner, unable to take any action at all. He had to force all that out of his mind. His only concern now was getting to the top of the cliff and out of this infernal gorge.
He reached the crevice and saw that his assessment was not incorrect. The walls were rough, easily affording him handholds. He clambered up it quickly and a few minutes later found himself at the top of the cliff, safely out of the prison that had confined him for most of the day.
Issuing a huge sigh of relief he looked around. The ground was level here, the trees sparse. He could see quite a distance in every direction. He had no idea how far he had traveled but he couldnít really get lost. All he had to do was follow the gorge back to where the ladder was, then up to the fort. It was just a matter of time now.
He started off at a run. The ground was firm here; there were no more slippery rocks. His sense of urgency was greater than ever. The sun was sinking below the horizon. It would be that much more difficult to find his way once night fell, and he would have a better chance against the dog men if he could see them coming.
He hadnít been traveling for very long when the next problem reared its ugly head. He heard a howl, off to his right, the same as he had heard earlier in the gorge, but this one sounded much closer. Turning, he looked up the slope and spotted one of the dog menÖ no, two dog men slipping in and out of the trees up above him. They had spotted him, they were closing in.
He increased his pace. He didnít know how many where there, didnít know how many were converging on him. Three or four he thought he could handle. Any more than thatÖ
Were there more about? Would they even attack him? They had left the fort alone since Willbrandís raid. They had shown a distinct reluctance to engage the young noble in battle since he had shown his prowess with a sword. If he was with a group he would not be concerned but of course that was not the case. He was alone, an easy target, if there were enough of them.
Soon the trees closed in about him. He could no longer see the dog men, but he could still hear their cries and howls. As he progressed he began to hear answering calls, calls from other directions. Occasionally he would see them dashing through the trees, off in the distance, keeping pace with him. They were tracking of him, waiting to gather their forces, until they had enough to overwhelm him.
It was difficult to follow the cliff now. The trees grew all around here and the ground was covered with underbrush, and it wasnít always possible to follow the path he wished, or to stay close to the chasm. Eventually, however, he came out into an open area. Looking around slowly he recognized the place, the two trees that stood at the edge of the precipice and the pile of rope curled up on the ground beneath them. He was finally back to where the rope ladder lay. He wasnít sure how long he ran. It seemed like hours but could not have been for the sun was setting when he emerged from the gorge and now there was still some faint light left.
He wasnít that far from the fort now. A short dash up the slope would get him there. But looking around, he saw that wasnít going to be easy.
The dog men had closed in around him. Their howls and cries had been a constant cacophony but now, suddenly, they fell silent. He looked around and saw them slowly emerging from the forest from all directions. Six of them stood between him and the fort, and more were appearing on all sides. He was surrounded, trapped.
Six of them in front. More coming from out of the woods. Five or six more, at least. A good dozen of them. Realistically, he would have no chance against such odds.
He pulled his sword from its sheath, determined to kill as many as he could before they took him down. Those in front of him stepped back at this movement. They had seen the power of his sword. They were afraid of it. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage.
They gave back, but only for a moment. The ones coming from the sides moved closer, almost within striking distance, then scurried back when he turned toward them. He backed up, until he stood at the edge of the precipice. He could retreat no farther, but neither could the dog men come up behind him.
They milled around him, slowly moving closer then back again when he threatened them with his weapon. He could see they were building up their courage, that it was just a matter of time before they came at him and overwhelmed him.
This had been Brantís plan all along. He hadnít had the courage to face Willbrand himself, and instead though treachery left him for the dog beasts to kill. Willbrand would take some of them with him but he couldnít kill them all before they took him down. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow that not only was it very likely he would die here but also that Brantís plan had worked so well.
The fact that he would die, the fact that the Warden had planned it all, bad as it was, was not the worst of it. No, what made him sick at heart now was what would happen to Merigan. What would she do without him? What would become of her? Would she be able to extricate herself from this place without his help?
And the thought of her brought back the words she had spoken.
If the dog men really were intelligent, then couldnít they be reasoned with?
That they were intelligent he now had no doubt. That day when those three men had died, the dog men had deliberately targeted the minerís waterskins. They had tried to cut the miners off from their supply of water. No matter how the Warden might have dismissed it, it was plain the attempt had been deliberate and premeditated.
On the other hand, they werenít quite as bright as humans, or at least, thought in a different way. The rope ladder was an obvious target for them to exploit. If the waited until men went down it then pulled it up themselves, the men would have been trapped below. If seemed they had never done that, however. The door to the shed by the wharf had been closed by a simple latch, a latch a child could open, but the dog men hadnít done that. Perhaps there was just nothing inside that they were interested in but he would have thought if they could have entered it they would have, at least out of curiosity. They had come up with a complicated plan of attack but some things that seemed simple to him appeared beyond their comprehension. He couldnít really say how bright they were.
Still, it was obvious their intelligence, if not on par with a humanís, was at least far superior to any other beast. If they could come up with as complicated a plan as they had, surely they could understand his desire not to fight them.
Yet even if they did understand that, would it make any difference? The miners and the dog men had been at each others throats for a long time now, for years at least. The miners killed the dog men indiscriminately, every chance they got. Who was to say the dog men wouldnít feel any differently? What would happen if he offered the olive branch instead of the sword?
He wasnít sure of course. He didnít know how much hatred the dog men felt for the miners. There was only one way to tell, and he would be putting his life on the line to find out.
Then again, his life was on the line at this very moment, now wasnít it? It seemed he had three very simple choices, run, fight or attempt to negotiate. The rope ladder lay on the ground at his feet. If he could toss it over the edge and climb down, would he be safe from them? He didnít think they had the capability to climb but he wasnít certain of that. Besides, even if he made it to the bottom, what would he do then? They would just go around; they would continue to pursue him, and he would be that much farther from his goal. They could run much faster than he could, they would eventually corner him again. That route would just stave off the inevitable.
Besides that, they now stood perhaps a dozen paces away, almost within range of leaping upon him. He didnít think he could throw the rope down, turn and start to climb down without feeling their fangs on his neck.
Fight. The next choice. Brave, noble andÖ suicidal. He would kill some of them, take as many with him to hell as he could, but there were just too many. He didnít think he could beat them all.
Negotiate. An unknown factor. He would have to leave himself defenseless to try that one, something he obviously was loath to do. If they didnít go for it, if they wanted to kill him regardless, he would die anyway, and without even lifting a finger to defend himself.
He didnít really like any of those choices, but, try as he might, he could think of no further options. The beasts had edged closer still, the glint in their eyes giving Willbrand the impression they would soon strike. He had to make up his mind, and he had to do it now.
He didnít have enough time to think about it. Pondering the choices, however, it seemed to him that the first two only led to certain death.
He lifted his sword up, then turned it and thrust it back into its sheath.
As calmly as he could, he spoke.
ďIím not going to kill anymore.Ē
He wasnít sure why he said that. It just seemed like the thing to do. In the back of his mind, he harbored the unlikely notion that perhaps the beasts would understand him. They had been fighting the miners for years. He had seen their scouts observing what was going on in the fort. If they really were intelligent, wasnít it possible they might be able to understand some of his language?
It seemed a bit far-fetched, and he had to chide himself for even thinking it, but what did he have to lose, after all? Saying that certainly wasnít going to do any harm.
He almost would have laughed, if the circumstances hadnít been so dire, at the reaction of the dog men to his sheathing his sword. They just stood there, staring at him and the looks of surprise and puzzlement on their faces at this act was so like a humanís as to be easily readable. It was obvious to Willbrand that what he had done had been totally unexpected and they werenít quite sure what to do about it. From the wary glances they gave him now he could almost read on their faces what they were thinking. Was this some kind of trick? Was he trying to lure them in, give them a false sense of security before he struck? Most of all, could they get to him before he pulled his sword out again?
A few of them inched closer, eyeing him warily, waiting for any sign on his part that he would withdraw the sword again. He just stood there impassively, his hands at his sides, trying to look as open and harmless as he could. They were close now, within striking distance, he thought. If they lunged at him now, he wouldnít have time to defend himself. Later on he would realize that his just standing there, making no move to defend himself, was one of the bravest things he had ever done.
This proved especially true when a moment later one of the beasts that stood in front of him, having built up its own courage, suddenly lunged forward at his throat.