~ The Quest ~
Twenty minutes later, I was ready for whatever they were going to tell me.
The dwarf and the ogre were looking doubtful.
“I don’t think those work where we’re going.” Brock gestured with some distaste at the gun slung over my left shoulder.
I raised an eyebrow. “You ever shot a gun, Brock?”
The dwarf glared at me, finally shaking his head.
”Then how the hell would you know?”
He shrugged. I ignored him. The gun was an open-sight .300 Savage; a family heirloom that my great-grandfather had bought the year of its making. My grandfather had an alaskan grizzly pelt in his guest bedroom the gun had taken. The stock was solid hardwood with a stainless steel shoulder plate; the barrel was three and a half feet of blued steel. Frankly, if the thing didn’t fire ‘where we were going’, I’d could do worse than just hitting things with it.
Bhuto had a different problem. “Do you not have a more… formidable hand-weapon, Sean?”
I readjusted the grip on my old ‘herding stick’, which I’d found in a barrel of similar tools in the machine shed. I’d cut it from an ash tree when I was thirteen and had used the four-foot club whenever I had to push one of our bulls into a new pasture, on foot.
I could have explained all of that to them, but as far as explanations went, I didn’t really feel like it was my turn.
I motioned towards the trees behind the house. “Let’s just go.”
When we got to the edge of the trees farthest from the farm, Bhuto extended his hand to me for the second time, doing the same for Brock. It was my turn to look doubtful.
”Explanations come shortly, Sean, but we need to move quickly now, when we are not marked by others.” Brock said. “I can assist with that.”
I almost refused, until I saw Brock’s expression. However uneasy I felt, the dwarf was far worse, and part of me wanted to see why. I took the ogre’s hand.
I’m not sure what I was expecting… a puff of smoke, a swirling of my perceptions, maybe. When we just shot off the ground and into the sky without a word or gesture, I couldn’t help but shout.
The night passed and the clouds rolled back in on cue.
They came for Steven not long after and started again.
First they stripped the mud away with blunt fingers, accomplishing in less than a minute what had been denied him through the night. The mass came away in huge chunks, dry and dusty, though it had clung like putty the day before. They finished the cleaning with an orange-tinted liquid that foamed when it hit made the the needles burn all the way down to his joints. Completely clean, his skin had a greyish cast — probably the light from the clouds.
Then they tied him to the tree again and brought a new cauldron of the mud. Packing it back on took most of the day. The tall one watched the whole thing without moving or relaxing its corpse-smile.
Steven never made a sound. Damned if he would.
The worst part of it was when they put him back in the cage.
The day ended, the clouds pulled back, the stars came out, and he wondered for the first time if anyone would come.
We landed on a curving stretch of blacktop a few miles away from the farm. Ravines dove away from the road on both sides.
I shook my head. “Why are we here?”
Bhuto looked up at the sky. “This is the only place we could be, Sean. We must reach your father.”
“Oh.” I thought for a second. “You do realize that’s the most pointless, circular answer I’ve ever heard, right? And I went to a liberal arts college.”
Brock advanced toward me as Bhuto sighed. Much to my dismay, he didn’t stop until he was nearly touching me.
”What do you call this road?”
My eyes were watering. I blinked rapidly and focused on the question. “Ahh. Vayland. Vayland Road.” The problem with people telling you to breath through your mouth when around a bad smell is that instead of smelling it, you taste it.
He smiled up at me and I was glad for the darkness that largely hid his teeth. “Why is that?”
”Why is what?”
”Why do they call it that?”
”Because…” I thought about it. “I don’t know why.”
His smile broadened and I had to take a step back. “Let me tell you why.” He turned away from me and threw out his arms. “This place is a border between realms. The very first people who lived here and named things called the people on the other side wa`rii we because they didn’t understand. Others came and gave the border different names. When the people of my lands came,” he thumped his chest “they took the names it had already and translated the words and the idea. They called it a fae land.” His eyes glinted as he turned back to me. “You know what that is?”
I nodded, not bothering to explain why.
He spun on his heel, pacing toward the shoulder of the road. “The border to the fae land was marked by those who knew enough about it, and the name stuck, changing, after they’d all gone to dust.” He spat on the blacktop. “Then some dog-buggering half-wit built a road here, since the markers were already there. No one remembered that they were meant to show you where not to go.”
“Sounds like the sort of thing someone would do,” I said. “And I suppose I get why we’re here.”
“Do you.” Brock wandered in a wide circle around us.
I didn’t bother answering him. “What’s next?”
Bhuto studied me for a moment. “That is something you will tell us, Sean.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Really?”
”Understand, we are here to help you, but we are also here to help your father, and we could not — can not — do that without you.” The ogre pointed to me with a knobby finger that ended with an elegantly painted claw. “You are our link to him.”
I looked up at the stars, letting myself marvel for a second at how many more there were away from the city, then blew out a breath between my teeth.
“Okay,” I said, “what do I do?” I was looking at Bhuto, but he gestured to Brock.
Brock was holding a silver needle.