Episode 17: The Road to Darkdim Crux
We made it all the way out to the horses before Riordan broke down. "That's it? 'Peace to both families'? We returned his mother's ring! We solved a family mystery! A very wealthy family, might I add! We salvaged the name of the entire Verafin clan! You would think there would be a reward in there somewhere. A little financial show of gratitude…"
Holding the horse for me to mount, Minerva frowned. "Osgun, put your weight immediately over the back of the horse, then worry about swinging your leg over his back. That way the saddle will not slide. It is also more comfortable for your mount. And, Master Seawolf, asking for a reward would have been tasteless and might have cast some doubt as to the veracity of our story. I would not imperil the future of the Verafin family name to acquire a petty sum we do not need."
"I would appreciate a little more advance discussion about what kinds of sums 'we' do or do not need," Riordan grumbled from his horse, while I reached down to pull Minerva atop the saddle in front of me. "You do not have the facts about what kind of financial situation I am in and I am under the impression that you, madam, don't have a copper to your name."
Minerva's dark eyes were flashing as she swiveled from sitting sideways on the horse, swinging one leg in front of her over its neck, using my thigh to steady herself. "I am getting a better understanding of your perspective, Master Seawolf. I might have pointed out that it was I who found the ring, using my own particular talents and since without me, you wouldn't have had a ring or unfinished justice to sell," she virtually spat the word, "that perhaps it was my affair to receive recompense for or not as I saw fit. Now that I see I am mistaken, perhaps you would like to make money off my other inherent talents and have me sell my flesh on the street!" She rapped her heels sharply on our gelding's sides, causing him to lift his head in surprise and lurch into a bumpy jog. I looked over my shoulder a bit helplessly at Riordan.
"Um, Minerva?" I asked after a few moments.
She sighed, leaning back up against me for just a moment. "I know. I was too harsh." She straightened up. "I need some time before I can apologize first, however."
"Actually, I was hoping we could slow the horse down." That joggy thing was extremely harsh on some of the few places that had really been enjoying the whole riding experience up until recently.
Apologizing, she reined the horse in. "You have to sit back and relax."
"I'll fall off!"
"Not if you put your weight in your heels. When you sit tense like that, he thinks you want to continue. Remember, seat, leg, hands…"
A moment or two of shifting and clutching, none of which I was able to enjoy, being in pain and fear of falling, and the gelding slowed to a shuffle. Riordan trotted past us. "I'm sorry," he snapped and pushed his horse ahead.
A lot of the tension faded from her shoulders. "I will apologize when we return to the inn."
I had to fight with my senses for a moment to resist the urge to reach out and rub her upper arm. Being so close was doing things to my head. "Hey, you know what he was saying about money? You don't have to worry about it, okay? I got enough to cover you."
"I know, Osgun. And I will try to find a way to repay you."
"Nah, don't worry about it. I mean that."
"I know. Ahwadi told me about the coins."
That stopped me short. "Who is Ad... Aw..."
"Ahwadi. He is the spirit messenger of Queen Belshade. The coins Master Seawolf acquired came east with an agent of Noksheoth. Ahwadi kept track of them, in hopes they might be of some use in assisting me to his mistress. I am certain he will see you are reimbursed. It is part of the reason I am pleased you will be accompanying me west."
I was quiet for a bit, then had to say, "You know, it seems like you can really take care of yourself. Are you sure you need me along? I could just give you the money, if that would be easier."
She turned in the saddle to look at me and squeezed my knee. "I think that's the first ridiculous thing I've heard you say, Ozzie. Gentlemanly, but ridiculous. I like to think that I have my uses, but I have been grateful for your presence. For both of you. It is my deepest hope that I do not need to call on your talents and my greatest consolation that they are available for me should I need them. I will find a way to continue on my own, should you decide upon another destination, but let there be no doubt what a comfort you have been to me with your presence and your strength. If there is any way I might repay you, you have only to ask."
Holding the reins so my arms encircled her, listening to her say nice things about me… I felt like I was king of Waymeet and all the centaur lands around it. I ducked my head a little to suggest close to her ear, "Then how about you get me some ale tonight at the inn?" She giggled like I hadn't heard her do since the Hammered Hand, and since she couldn't see my face from where she sat, I let myself get a big, stupid grin.
Back at the inn, Minerva approached Riordan and offered her own apologies. They spoke quietly for a few moments, after which everything seemed okay.
We traveled with a caravan east, in a less formal arrangement than with Havard and Finn and their wagon. We each had our own horse - and let me tell you that the only thing I liked about horses was riding behind Minerva, which, since I wasn't doing that anymore, should tell you how much I enjoyed the rest of the trip. At night we would camp near the rest of the wagons and pitch our tent, though sometimes there would be an inn nearby where we could stay. For the most part, the route from Darkdim Crux to Waymeet was not as well traveled as the road from Bloodport to Waymeet, so there weren't the quantity of nicely spaced inns to be had. It got colder for a while on the plains, then began warming up. I spent much of the travel time watching for signs of centaur cities or tribes and pestering Minerva and Riordan with questions. The strangeness of Waymeet got me thinking. That was a city built for lots of races. What would a place built just for four legged people look like?
"Well, they don't have houses like our type would prefer," Riordan explained seriously to me as we plodded along with the caravan. I squinted up at him to see if he was lying or not, then glanced at Minerva. She was nodding in silent agreement, staring out over the snow swept grassland, so I looked back to Danny with a more open mind. "They're just not fond of that sort of thing. They don't build streets or buildings. They build racetracks and fences. The fences make these large paddocks where families live…" Minerva turned on her horse to give Riordan a disgusted look as he finished up. "And of course they have stalls with cross ties for their women."
I looked back over my shoulder to where my horse was following me, looking bored. In wooded areas or wherever there was a lot of cover, I caved in to pressure and rode the horse. There had already been one attempt by bandits to rob the caravan and it was good to be able to keep up if things had to move fast. But out here where we could see a ways around us, Riordan only complained a little if I walked. I found the horse and I got along a lot better this way. At this point in time, the horse didn't seem to be buying Riordan's centaur story either, so I looked over at Minerva and waited.
She tried not to look at me, but I was patient. She'd tell soon enough. As predicted, after a few moments, she shifted uncomfortably in her saddle and then rode a little closer to me to speak quietly. I noted Riordan drop his horse back close enough to listen also.
"It is true that the centaur people have little love for building such as we are accustomed to. They are, I have heard tell, a people with a profound respect for nature, and they travel in large family groups across the plainslands, as if always on a journey."
"There are some nasty winters out here," Riordan frowned. "They just tough those out? Or do they make big tents?"
"I have seen drawings of structures from hide that look to be large windbreaks of a sort, to keep off the worst of the weather. But they are a hardy people and scorn roof or floor. To be separated from earth or sky to them is to turn away from life itself."
"Well, if they have no homes, then they have no farms, and if they have no farms, they have no grain. What do they eat? Grass?" Riordan demanded.
"They hunt for meat. And they cultivate crops, they merely leave them unattended after planting, while they journey. Eventually they come back to them, or come across others left by other families."
"Doesn't sound very efficient."
"Not every people esteem efficiency above all else."
Riordan was right - it didn't sound very efficient. What it sounded was like something out of a bard's song. What did they know that we didn't, traveling about and looking at the world, seeing to only what they needed? I thought of the reek of low tide, when the fish guts and wharf trash combined with the stench from the sewer outlet, pooling on the rocks until the tide could come in and wash it away. "You think we'll get to see any?"
"Centaurs?" Minerva looked back down to me. "Most likely not, Osgun. They are a private people. When they have use for races of men, they go to the cities to seek them out." I must have let my disappointment show, because she added, "All things are possible, though."