4. Her Meeting of Six Men
“Oi, Bryn. Found you!”
Bryn thought or dreamt she had heard a voice. It must have been a dream. She willed it to be a mistake. So, she refused to open her eyes.
“Didn’t ya hear me? Ya’re a heavy sleeper.”
There was no mistaking it this time. Someone was in the shed trying to communicate with her. Bryn’s eyes snapped open. The towering shadow in front of her was none other than that shaggy stranger Nudd. He was smiling at her as if he was an old friend paying a visit to her home. In an instant Bryn was on her feet, glaring at him.
“What are you doing here,” She snapped. Being awoken by a stranger who was evidently harassing her was a sure sign her day was going to be a crabby, bitter one.
As Bryn rose, Nudd backed away. Her eyes were dark, and she had acquired a deep scowl overnight from the lack of sleep. She looked scary enough that Nudd felt a twinge of misgivings.
Shaking the feeling off, Nudd answered her question innocently, “Told ya I was com’n back. Brought my brothers too.”
“What did you say?”
The force of that ’what’ was so strong that Nudd almost took another step away from her. He mentally decided that she did not bite even though she growled.
Bryn was grabbing at her bag, having to stuff a few articles of clothing back in, after her frantic search for her light orb the night before. She then threw her belt around her waist and holstered her revolver.
As she snatched up her things, she was marching past Nudd towards the door. Although she expected it, she was astounded to see four towering men loitering in front of the shed, all of them staring at her. Although of different heights, hair and beards there was a similarity in all of the men. Specifically by how they dressed in worn and faded clothing. Two of them were not wearing shirts. All of them looked as if they needed a deep wash. All she could smell on them was dirt and sweat. All of them had broad shoulders and muscles that would daunt many men. To add to their wild appearance, none of them wore any kind of shoes. Their bare, thick feet were covered with black stains of mud.
“Clear skies this Morn,” One of them said. She had no idea which one, they were too daunting for her to pay attention.
“Fair morn,” Bryn grumbled the appropriate response, “Excuse me. I’d like to pass.” She slipped by them, throwing her bag over her shoulder and straightening out her ruffled clothes and hair. She felt uncomfortable with these men hovering over and outright staring at her. When she was out from under their shadows she heard Nudd speak behind her.
“Brothers, this be the girl. Heard her called Miss Bryn before. She ne’er introd’d her name to me. Wasn’t I right?”
One of the brother’s commented, “She ’as dragon smells on ’er.”
That was when Bryn stopped in her tracks and spun around to face them. A few moments ago she was terrified of these men, now she was in a mood when she did not care what came out of her mouth.
“The smell is coming from my jacket.” She held up the brown leather that had been poking out of her bag. “Dragon leather you see. It was a gift from my papa. It is creepy going around smelling people, you should rethink that lifestyle. Now tell me,” She directed her glare at Nudd, “How did you find me? Do you follow every girl you like the smell of? It is hard enough that I must avoid Arion and his friends, now I have you to deal with.”
Nudd glanced at his brothers. He tried to speak, but it was as if he had forgotten how. Bryn’s reaction had stunned him into silence.
Bryn rolled her eyes as she turned back around. “If I find anyone else following me again I will go to the authorities. Or I might shoot you myself, depends on my mood. Leave me be.”
With that out of her, and her polite farewells forcibly said. Bryn made her way to the back door of the elderly couple and let herself in, slamming the door closed behind her.
None of the brothers tried to stop her by word or action. Instead they strolled off the property, speaking in low voices amongst themselves.
Inside the house Bryn paid what she owed to the elderly couple and readied to leave her hosts place. Not before the woman handed her a loaf of banana bread she had made fresh that morning.
Bryn had a lighter step as she exited the house, with food in her belly and a gift of food in her bag she was partly cured of her grumpiness. Bryn made her way to the town stables, having received directions from the very kind couple. She did her best to haggle for a fairly swift mattath. To her delight they had not plunged her purse as deeply as she had been preparing for.
An unattractive, old mattath had been settled on, along with a saddle and attached saddlebags. Like all mattath, he was large and hairy. The powerful beast had large paws and long legs made for running. He had burly shoulders and a short rounded nose with floppy ears. This mattath had an all brown fur coat that was greasy. He was fairly thin for his kind. He was missing an ear from frost bite and was blind in one eye. Even if he was ugly his powerful legs were still sturdy and able to last a journey. That was all Bryn cared for, besides she pitied the beast with a woman’s tender heart.
Next were the food supplies she would need to last her and the mattath several days, along with bullets for her her revolver, she had to stuff them in the saddlebags, making the leather bags fat and ready to burst. The next thing she did was consult a map from the public reading rooms. She took note of the distance she would be traveling, and towns she could stop to resupply. She calculated it would take her at least three days riding. After high noon she was ready to depart.
Settled on the back of the broad, hairy stead, Bryn did not look back as she left the town. Her heart was partly out of her chest as she rode, she was anxious to be with her family, in the safety of their embrace once again.
The lone traveler was not even a half a mile out of the town, when she heard the rumbling of wheels. She glanced over her shoulder only to snap back around. Some part of her did not want to turn around and see what she did not want to be there, and she gave into that part for a good long while. It was not until she heard a voice she dreaded she would hear did she glance behind.
“Fair afternoon, Bryn,” Nudd joyously burst out.
Bryn mechanically turned her head back and saw not five men, but six sitting in an open cart. She recognized the mattath that was pulling the cart from the breeders. It was a black mattath. They were a smaller breed, but just as sturdy. The cart itself was old and squeaked like a mouse with every movement.
Bryn did not respond with the usual replied greeting, in fact she did not reply at all, she just stared at them.
“Mind if we join ya?” Asked the cart driver.
Bryn did not reply to the question either. She did not reply at all until they were almost beside her. “Didn’t I tell you to leave me alone? I have half a mind to turn around and alert the authorities to six men who like to harass already distressed travelers.”
She really did have half a mind to do so, but she did not want to. She wanted to continue on without any incident if possible. What stopped her from being as fearful of these men, as she might have been, was that there was something about them that demanded you trust them. She was not going to only rely on instinct however. She eyed her revolver once or twice just to be sure it was unstrapped in the holster.
One of the men in the back responded to her threat, “Don’t mean no harm, just want to be travel’n on as well. That so bad?”
The one beside him added, “Ain’t safe traveling these roads alone. Best have bodies for protect’n.”
Despite her grudge, Bryn was silent. She supposed she had the advantage of speed if they did try anything. The pace they were going she would soon outstretch them if she nudged her mattath to walk a little faster.
“If ya’r not wanting us near ya, we can moves away. We’re not wanting to scare ya,” Nudd softly said, trying to reassure Bryn that they meant no harm.
Bryn gave a great puff of air, as if in defeat, “I cannot stop you from using the same path, the road is free. As long as you can keep up, you are welcome to ride along side.”
Her words amused the men enough that they were beaming from ear to ear. All accept the new comer. He was almost scowling, although it was hard to tell since he hid his face under his hair and beard.
“Where ya off to in a hurry,” One of the passengers asked of her.
Bryn replied without thinking, just to regret it afterwards, “I am making my way to the twelve rivers. Where are you and yours journeying to?”
The cart driver shrugged, “Here ’n there.”
“Never heard of it,” Bryn sarcastically mumbled. There was a short lull in conversation before she decided to speak again, “Since we might be traveling together for some time, would you be so kind as to tell me your names? You already have the advantage of knowing mine.”
“Course,” Said the driver, “Names Muir.”
What Bryn noticed distinctly about Muir was his coal black eyes. Somehow he made black sparkle whenever he smiled. His shaggy light brown hair was more curled than the others and his beard was not so out of control. On his bare left forearm, Bryn thought she saw a tattoo, but after glancing at it a few times she distinguished it was scars in the shape of a fanged bite.
“Lorn,” Said the one sitting directly behind Muir.
Lorn’s darker hair could hardly cover the bushiest eyebrows Bryn had ever seen. They almost covered his dark eyes. It seemed to suit him though, it fit with his face. He had almost a natural scowl as he scrutinized her more thoroughly than she did him.
Her eyes pulled away from him when the one beside Lorn spoke, “Tory.”
Tory was the most different of the men. His skin had a copper glow. His eyes were bright like Nudd’s, but mostly hidden under his pitch-black hair. His left cheek had a scorch mark crawling up it, almost touching his eye. Even his dangling beard could not cover it. His smile was what Bryn took note of. It was friendly and kind.
The fifth spoke up when Bryn turned her eyes to him. “Titen.” His voice was deep and rumbled a little.
Titen was the biggest and bulkiest. His dirty blonde hair was tied in a braid at the back of his head. His bushy beard laid on his cheek a mess that needed trimming. He did not look unkind, although a glance toward him would send chills down a strangers spine.
The last man, the one that had not been at the shed, looked almost awkward as he faced directly ahead. His arms were crossed, the way a child does when they are being stubborn. Even though he sat with his brothers he was in a way separate from them. His dusty brown hair covered his eyes on his square face. He was the only other one, besides Nudd, without a heavy beard.
“That’s Kai,” Nudd explained after waiting for the man to speak, “He don’t talk much. Don’t like strangers.”
Bryn did not grudge him for that, and even nodded to him in consideration.
“I will be honest I am going to have difficulties keeping all of your names straight.” She admitted.
“Don’t matter to us,” Muir shrugged.
“I recall Nudd saying you are all brothers, is that true,?”
“Truth.” Lorn replied. “Not official like, but we’re brothers all the same.”
Bryn guessed he meant they were not blood brothers.
“Where do all of you hail from? I do not recognize your accents,” She was too curious not to ask.
There was silence, not because they did not want to answer. It was that they did not know how to answer; they had simply forgotten their homeland.
Tory was the first to remember, “Oh, it was that village. ’n Gazon. What’s the name?”
“Dirt Covered,” Nudd declared.
Lorn shot that down immediately, “Th’was the place we slept in two weeks past.”
“Entrench Town,” Titen burst out the answer.
That did not help Bryn very much, she was not sure where Dirt Covered was. She tried to pull more information from them, but the brothers did not care to remember anymore.
A few more menial questions later the conversation had died down. In those long pauses Bryn tried her best to subtly travel at a slightly faster pace and eventually create a large gap between her and these men. The only problem was that whenever she got too far ahead one of the brother’s would force her to slow down with another inquiry or story they wanted to tell. It was a way to force her to stay because she was too young not to be polite.
The sun was beginning its descent in the sky. Considering how tired she was she had held on longer than might be expected. Before she lost complete control of her patience, Bryn took an opportunity in a lull of conversation to ask the brothers what had been nagging on her mind since she left them. “Why are all of you so set on accompanying me? When I say accompany, I mean following. Why are you following me?”
That made them all chuckle. Their amusement left an annoying, unexplainable tick in Bryn that she did her best to brush away.
“Told ya why,” Nudd replied.
Bryn took a moment to recall to mind all he had said to her. “No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did. Said ya smell like dragons.”
This time Bryn laughed. She tilted her head back to the sky, her mouth wide. His ridiculous answer amused her because she was tired of being grumpy and mad and laughing felt better than scowling. Once she finished, which she took her time to do, she looked directly at Nudd, her chest was lighter. “I already told you why I smell like a dragon. Why does that matter and how are you able to smell so well?”
The brothers all looked at each other nervously. Not one of them even attempted to answer.
Bryn gave them a grim stare that communicated very clearly. ‘Answer my question or I am leaving you with the dust.’
Tory’s response was slow as if he was making up what to say as he spoke. “Brother means is ya have dragon stuff ’n ya.”
“That makes less sense.” Bryn burst. “Be honest, if your intent is to rattle my senses and poke jests at me, say so and move on. I am in a hurry and don’t have time to wait for a cart.”
“Bah, she’s right,” Everyone jolted when Kai spoke for the first time since they caught up with Bryn, “She don’t want no he’p from us. Let ’er alone ’n let’s be off.”
“Can’t,” Lorn calmly replied.
“What,” Kai growled deep in his throat.
Bryn flinched when she heard it. Even the mattath groaned uncomfortably at the sound.
“Can’t,” Muir repeated, unaffected by Kai’s drastic mood.
“Can’t,” Titen, Tory and Nudd said at the same time as if rehearsed.
Bryn was somehow spellbound as she watched intently. She could not explain it, perhaps she sensed something important was being decided and she might gleam some insight, so she did not interfere.
“She don’t want us,” Kai’s voice rolled.
“Cause she don’t know us,” Nudd put in.
“No one asked you mutt,” Kai haughtily spat.
“Oi, don’t pick on ’im. Ya always do that when ya don’t get ya’r way,” Muir said over his shoulder.
Before Kai could argue back, Lorn interrupted, “She needs us gett’n ’er to ’er family. Like we’ve been told to do.”
“An’ ya knows it too,” Titen added.
Kai scoffed, instead of arguing, “She still don’t want us. Don’t cling to those that’ll try an’ rip you off.”
They all turned on Bryn at this point.
“Well,” Lorn asked.
“What do you mean by saying ‘well’,” Bryn asked blatantly, “I do not trust you just because you told your brother off. Who told you to escort me to my family?”
“We want to he’p take ya to ya’r family,” Nudd said as cheerful as ever, avoiding the question.
Bryn tightened her lips. She was about to kick her mattath into a tight trot to escape these brothers, who made less sense the more she talked to them.
“That man’s still chasing ya,” Nudd put in as an afterthought.
“What did you say,” Bryn squawked without meaning to.
Nudd’s information did its job in that Bryn temporarily forgot she was about to be mad at the brothers.
“Yep,” Nudd nodded as he spoke, “Saw ‘em as we left. Gett’n ready to follo’ ya.”
Bryn cursed under her breath. Things were getting worse and worse the more the day was passing. She glanced at the brothers again. All of them were focused on her, waiting to hear what she was going to do about it. She inwardly grimaced as her resolve was beginning to cave.
“If you promise not to harm me or my family in any way, I will try and trust you and allow you to join me. If those gentlemen are still after me, I am going to need people I can trust with me. Do you promise to guard me and do no harm?”
Almost in unison the brothers declared, “Promise!”
Although most people use more words when swearing their loyalty—some even have special speeches—Bryn accepted it and she traveled with more ease at their side. She did wish they could travel faster.
It was not long after, since the dark of the evening was creeping in that they made camp off to the side of the road. There were no forests around them, just a few scraggly twigs poking out of the ground. They were in a vast valley, but hoped to reach the northern woods by the next day.
The brothers quickly had twigs gathered and had a fire going within minutes. Bryn noticed, as she rubbed down her mattath, that the brothers had not brought any sort of food. They were soon discussing the matter amongst themselves and before Bryn could offer to share a bit of hers, even though it would cost her, Kai was on his way into the dark.
“I’ll hunt,” Was all he said. He had no gun or any sort of hunting equipment that Bryn could see, not even a knife.
“How…” She began to ask anyone, but then stopped. She was not ready for some absurd answer.
Instead she sat silently, leaning against her mattath’s warm stomach. The beast was gnawing on a whole ham, devouring it quickly and chewing on the bone when he had finished. She had made sure to pack lots of fatty foods for the mattath, in her bursting saddle bags.
Bryn was partly listening to the brothers argue. It was about traveling faster. Her name was brought up more than once, but the exhausted girl did not even try to decipher what they were about. Instead she was pondering a name she could call the ugly mattath. The fury steed’s name had been forgotten by the tamers, who had bought him off of other travelers.
At one point Bryn retrieved the light orb from her pack. She carefully opened a hole in the orb through a sliver of a crack and so was able to remove the rock within. She tossed it in the hottest and brightest part of the fire, taking note of where it landed so she could retrieve it once it had absorbed the fire’s heat.
“Oi, Bryn,” Lorn called out, as she was sitting back down.
It was strange how they addressed her so familiarly, she did not object, it was only odd.
Once she looked up at him, Lorn asked, “Where we going? How far?”
“We are first traveling to the Roves Passage.”
“But where? Ya family not there are they?”
Bryn made herself comfortable in her seat as she replied. “No, they’re not. From there I will hire a boat to take me to them.”
“Where’s that?” Lorn pushed on.
“I don’t know,” Bryn sucked in air, she was disappointed in her own answers, “I don’t know exactly where they are. I was hoping someone who lives there could tell me or lead me to them.”
“Shouldn’t be hard,” Muir said, agreeing with her decision.
Lorn only stared at her.
Bryn returned the eye contact, “Do you have a better idea?”
“No,” Was all Lorn said, and he dropped the questions.
A few minutes later Kai returned with two dead, large hares swung over his shoulder.
The brothers rejoiced like wild animals. They cheered and clapped each other on the backs and tried to snag the catch from Kai. The hunter just glared them down and would not let any of them touch his game. He skinned the meat himself and would have tossed the skins into the fire, except Bryn intervened and asked if she could have them. He simply shrugged as he handed them to her.
It was difficult for her to clean them without the proper equipment. As she stretched the skins out, she noticed the puncture holes near the neck of both the victims. They were small and about five on each skin. They were unlike a dagger or knife wound. She thought perhaps it was from some sort of snare, although what kind of trap that could gouge such holes, she could not imagine.
While she was working and puzzling over the puncture holes, the brothers were cooking the two hares directly over the fire, using twigs as makeshift netting. They had to turn the meat over and over again until it was thoroughly cooked.
Bryn finished her project by the time the brothers devoured their prey. Every little bite was consumed, even the fat and a few bones. It did not look like enough for such big men, but they were satisfied enough that they became drowsy.
Once everything was put away and the night took hold of the land, Bryn laid out her mat beside her mattath. While she did so she mentally established that the steed’s name would be Eyelag. The mattath, Eyelag was already dozing, his entire ham, bone and all, disappeared in his belly.
After everything was still, Bryn made herself comfortable on her mat, with her leather coat as her blanket. She had been weary all day and so drifted into a blissful slumber. She was surprised at how fast she was dropping off, perhaps she trusted those men more than she admitted even to herself. Even so, her pistol was hidden under the bag she was using as a pillow.
It was perhaps a few hours later that Bryn was wrenched from sleep by loud howling. In a flourished movement she grabbed at her pistol, quicker than she thought possible as she sat up. She tried to still her breathing, but failed. Her first thoughts were that her shed visitor from the night before was catching up to her as well.
She scanned the area and saw that the brothers were nowhere in in sight. For a fraction of a moment the scared girl dreaded they had tricked her and abandoned her while she slept, leaving her to the wild animals of the night. Another glance gleamed their wagon and mattath were lying where the brothers had left them. The black mattath and Eyelag were awake and watchful, grunting nervously, but they did not move from their spots. They were trained to not move without orders.
Bryn tossed her jacket off her legs and swung it over her shoulders to protect her from the night’s chill. She was on her feet the next moment, her gun in one hand pointed to the ground. The howling and scuffling of wild noises was so near her and yet out of sight. There was no moon to shine light on the area. The fire was only embers in the logs and gave next to no heat or light. Bryn bent and grabbed at her bag with one hand to find her orb. As she was dumping water into it, she remembered she had taken out the glowing stone. Rushing to the dying fire, she snatched up a half burnt stick to scoop the stone out of the embers. With the fumbling stick she missed the orb hole more than once before managed to spoon the hot stone into the orb and close it. With water already inside the orb’s light enveloped the area.
The howling ceased as the beacon caught every flashing eye. Now Bryn could see shadows all around the camp and beady eyes dancing about, not daring to enter the camp light. Some were larger, the size of big dogs, some a bit smaller. All were snarling at her as they slipped passed.
Not knowing what to do, and weighing her decisions, Bryn decided to call for help.
“Nudd,” She called first. He was her go-to brother; since he was the one she had known the longest. Nothing happened. “Muir? Titen!” At first she could not recall their names. Every time she remembered one she hollered it out, although whose name belonged to who she was not sure. “Kai! Tory! Lorn!”
She was only greeted with snarls and the scurrying of padded paws. The beasts were daring to come closer. Bryn could see glimpses of their size and the colours of their fur coats. They were wolves, not only wolves, coyotes were strung about, mixing with the bigger ones. Bryn had to squint at them for a long time before she was sure she was seeing the truth. Coyotes and wolves never traveled together. A wolf would more likely eat a coyote rather than hunt with one.
The next moment one of the shadows sprang into the camp’s circle, to rapidly charge towards her. The shadow looked a little too much like the nightmare from the night before. With both light and gun lifted to point in the threat’s direction, she gasped when she could identify the creature. It was a wolverine.
Pointing her revolver at it, she took a deep breath and readied to squeeze the trigger. Just as her finger was cocked she heard a shout.
“No, Bryn,” Lorn had a fringe of worry in his voice.
The startle forced Bryn to lift her finger off the trigger, but she did not take her eyes off the wolverine. The predator had slowed to a stop and was standing beside the smoldering camp fire, watching her intently.
The wolverine had a narrow head with a longish neck and broad body, with large powerful paws and sharp claws. The fur coat was all black, except the V shaped strip that was across the chest.
“Why shouldn’t I shoot it?”
“He’s…. uh friend,” Bryn jumped at Titen’s voice, he had managed to sneak up on her.
He behaved almost guilty as he stood by her. Like a son that was caught with a secret pet hidden under his bed.
“A wolverine is your friend,” Bryn questioned. Despite being on edge and a bit scared, she was relieved that the brothers were nearby. She dropped the revolver at her side.
“Yes,” Lorn glanced at Titen, “Keep ’em near for protect’n.”
Bryn scrutinized them both. They were terrible liars.
She crossed her arms, “Try explain that again.”
“Again,” Titen asked, very confused.
“Ya do know there’r fangs all ’round,” Lorn said as a reminder and as a way to distract her.
“I doubt our company will bother us when we have a wolverine as a friend,” Bryn said sarcastically, “Where are the others?”
“What others?” Titen asked.
“Last I counted there were six of you. Where are your brothers?”
As she was speaking, something else came running out of the shadows. Bryn lifted her orb and gun again. This time Lorn stepped in front of her line of fire, forcing her to lower the gun.
“Wait,” He growled.
Lorn stepped out of her way to reveal a wild dog wagging his tail.
He had large rounded ears that stuck up. His fur was light brown with darker spots sprinkled around his body and painted his nose and jaw. The dirty creature trotted right up to Bryn without any fear, and rubbed his head against her leg affectionately. Instinctual womanly tenderness had Bryn rubbing the dog’s big ears.
“Where did he come from,” She asked the brothers, “Is this another friend?”
“Uhh, yes,” Titen nodded vigorously.
Bryn took note of his outright lie as she crouched down so she could pet the dog more. As soon as she looked into the dogs face she was startled yet again, the dog’s eyes were green. The more she looked the more those eyes looked like someone she knew.
“Nudd,” She unconsciously whispered.
The dog’s ears perked and he tilted his head to one side at the sound of her voice.
Bryn brushed off the coincidence as she began rubbing the dog again. It took the girl a moment to realize the dog was growing right in front of her eyes and in her grasp. Not only that, he began to morph his appearance. Bryn fell back with fear, scrambling away as she watched the dog’s snout and ears disappear, replaced with ragged hair and a stubble beard. It was not a dog in front of her now. It was Nudd, with clothes and all, beaming at her.
“How’d ya know,” Nudd asked his smile still plastered on his face. He sprang to his feet, and helped Bryn to rise as well, even though she felt as if she would fall over with shock.
“I didn’t know you were a dog, that you can be a dog,” Bryn declared still bug-eyed.
“Ya said my name,” Nudd quizzically tilted his head.
Bryn was practically shouting in her delirium, “I just said that because the dog’s eyes were the same colour as yours. I didn’t think you were the same. What is wrong with you people,” She directed her glare at Lorn and Titen, “You can’t do that as well?”
On cue all three of the men dropped to all fours and grew snouts and ears and fur, as if they were changing clothes. All three were of the same breed of dog, they almost looked identical.
Bryn stared at them for a long moment. “You could have simply said yes. Can all of you do this?”
All three bobbed their heads up and down.
Their attentions were turned the very next second when Nudd moved towards the wolverine. He began to circle the other animal and pawed at the wolverine, until the beast snapped at him.
Before Bryn could demand they explain, a dog’s bark came from the darkness. The dog brothers and the wolverine all reacted at the same time. They lurched into defensive positions. The wolves and coyotes were no longer circling they were jumping into the lighted area.
Bryn lifted the orb and gun for a third time. While the canines fought tooth and claw, two wolves charged her. Bryn did not shoot, no one was there to tell her if they were humans or not. That hesitation allowed both the wolves to close in and pounce.