With their most ardent advocate gone, lost inexplicably as no one would give the northerners a straight answer, the refugees were made to trek southwards. The insistence was that the ferals had been driven away, and any remaining bestial creature that attempted to assail Roya was slaughter and scorched for the sake of assurance. It didn’t really matter, the reasoning of it all, but LaRoue knew that the forced departure came only from the lack of compassionate wolves. In defense of the Royans, none of them had been terribly concerned about the mixed collective and their caravans in the first place. It had been Sothoh to argue the need to shelter them and keep them as long as the wolves had permitted. The fact that his disappearance, LaRoue assumed death, precipitated their expulsion was of no surprise at all.
“Uncle LaRoue, how much longer?” Greshalin asked from the wagon, glumly but attempting to maintain the upbeat spirit her only remaining kin always seemed to possess.
Wishing the child would be less sorrowful, LaRoue forced himself to sound ever more optimistic, “Can’t say fo’ sho’ darlin’. Them wolves said it’d be a day or two, pro’ly longa’ wit’ the wagons, but ya neva’ know.”
“Will we ever get to go home? Like home where mama and papa are? I miss home,” the child whimpered, feeling the tears well in her eyes.
Hefting the girl from where she sat in the wagon bed to the seat of the coach, LaRoue began, “Now don’t you go a cryin’. Not much longer I’m thinkin’ we’ll be livin’ out’a the wagons. Snow’s been mild lately, not half so bad as we thought it be, and there ain’t none of them scary things prowlin’ ’bout,” eyeing the paths plowed by some sort of beast from the snowfields into a nearby copse, LaRoue halted for only a second, “All we doin’ now, goin’ south like we are, is to keep safe ’til Spring is in bloom. It wouldn’t do to get back there and have troubles again with snow fallin’ on our heads.”
The silence, the unending whipping of flake-filled wind, again took the wagons. There wasn’t much to be said from one man to another. Nothing could occupy the children, what few there were, beyond imaginative chittering and chattering. In one wagon, the dull rumble of a dice cup could be heard every now and again, but between the clacking stones and the myter talons pressing down against ice or the rare uncovered rock, the road south was dreadfully quiet. Within the silent world, it was as though time stopped, and the eternity of their travel from Roya to Seras could be felt in the ratio of minutes turning to days. LaRoue could only assume the rest felt that strain on their senses, that constant readiness to fly fitfully into action if not retreat from what could lurk just beyond the next bend. As a holler shook the conifers dotting the road, heavy with white lumps that only now slipped through the needles, LaRoue assumed the worst.
The procession of wagons ceased suddenly, and as they did, the carriages produced some of the last northerners with the ability and, more importantly, the will to fight off any oncoming attack. From the middle of the chain, LaRoue bound through untouched snow until falling into the breaks made by earlier footfalls. He wasn’t sure what to expect; a bestial creature, snarling with a muzzle full of one of his friend’s flesh, a demon blocking the path, looking to turn them into more unwilling vassals, or perhaps even some form of ghoul that would leave their flesh hollow while spiriting away their inner strength. What stood in the road was far from what LaRoue could have expected.
The wolf’s fur was gnarled and clumped with a layer of filth that no hot bath would wash clean without vigorous scrubbing. His clothes were nearly matted into his hide, and would do better to bound a torch rather than a person. There was a crescent ax in his grip, the blade gleaned with a fresh edge as though the weapon’s strength had priority over the man’s upkeep. However, when LaRoue’s gaze finally made it to the muzzle and began to pick out the details of the face, he was forced to halt. It was undoubtedly Sothoh, upon close inspection; however, an aspect of his face had been altered. A dull haziness hung in the orbs that had stained to a dark blue that would meld effortlessly into the heart of the ocean.
“Sothoh? Sothoh, is dat you? I’s LaRoue, yo’ friend, right?” the lynx asked rather than told, stepping back his drawl the best he could as he paced closer slowly.
With a shrug of his entire body, Sothoh seemed to click his mind into place and focus on the man, “What are you doing here?”
“Gotta come south… The, uh, leadership of Roya figured we were safe to travel. Where have you been, friend?” LaRoue hoped the man had not lost himself or his memory between their last conversation and that moment.
Hefting the head of the ax into his paw, Sothoh again rumbled gruffly, “It wasn’t safe just yet, not until I had them all. I don’t think a single one of them got away, but I’m hoping some did. The last of them were just too easy. Their fighting was nothing against what Jaium threw at me that night.”
“Yes. As I said, though, Sothoh, we are headed south and must continue on the path. Would you like to come with us, to Seras, until the weather is far more permitting travel by foot?” LaRoue stood paces away from the wolf now, ready to lunge forward should he suddenly turn aggressive.
With the suddenness of a lightning strike, Sothoh erupted in a hoarse laugh, “Yes! Yes, of course. Where else would I go if not with you, LaRoue? After all, when it’s all said and done, I think it might just be owed to me.”
After climbing aboard LaRoue’s wagon, regarding the silent cub in the back with only the slightest raising at the edge of his lips, the world fell quiet around Sothoh. He had grown all too accustomed to a noiseless world, far removed from the rest of civilization, with only the cold to keep him company. With a low humming sound, he told Greshalin, “Fell in some clay. Sticky stuff that clay.”
“What you been doin’ out here, all by your lonesome? Must not be ‘nother town ’round here for leagues,” LaRoue gestured to the landscape that shown hardly any travel beyond that of wildlife.
Again, barely managing an audible tone, the wolf remarked, “Falling.”
There wasn’t any need to follow up on that mundane response he laid out for the lynx, that much Sothoh knew. Yet, once the child had gone to sleep, he was confident the northerner would have nothing but questions for him. They were things better left unasked. Inquiries into his actions would only cause further probing. In truth, had LaRoue been out in the wild that night with Moqura and the rest, he would have one very reasonable question that Sothoh was deficient of explanation. However, what had come after that evening, hours post felling Jaium and then dragging himself free of the deformed carcass of his brother, was another story. What Sothoh had set out to do and then accomplished for all he could tell was the necessary response to so many unnecessary beasts roaming free. Even going so far as the ruined settlement north of Seras, Sothoh eradicated every last one of the bestial things. Digging a paw in a pouch kept within his small clothes, the wolf fumbled the crooked and cracked fangs that had come out of those sinister muzzles. The action itself was barbaric and likely unnecessary, but Sothoh could only figure that the monsters could do less harm without their teeth had they somehow survived. If those things, the feral beasts, could continue life after such fatal blows, Sothoh wanted to make sure they suffered, starved, and died all over again until they finally gave up. Slowly but surely, that thought, giving in and surrendering, brought Sothoh around once more to Sirian.
Had she given up hope, dropped the pursuit, and ended up in Roya or somewhere not far off? Should he tell her of Jaium’s fate and that he went down fighting, or that he was changed into something other than a respectable warrior? Would it do any good to tell her that the wolf she actually got along with was turned into a beast and then slain by one she had constantly clashed with? Or was every last one of those thoughts without worth? Perhaps she had pressed on and was still on the trail of Mishon and the cougar. Then again, just as likely, she had come across those two and either done away with them, knowing Mishonrayel’s weakness of heart or, not knowing that cougar at all, had succumbed to their brute force. Sothoh continued to ponder what had become of that last one of their little group that had set out what felt cycles ago in Autumn.
A jab from the lynx’s bony elbow jostled Sothoh into wakefulness, “‘Ey, you are any good with talkin’ with the foxes?”
“Foxes?” Sothoh’s eyes flecked with mist as he clicked his eyelids shut for the first time in what felt like hours. Somehow, night had passed him by, and he hadn’t moved an inch from the wagon’s coach seat. Not only had time gave him the slip, but the travel distance they made seem to have made a colossal leap. The gentle rhythm of the Camora river, rippling down from the mountains he called home, lulled him into a queer state of mind. He didn’t bother asking any more of LaRoue; rather, he slung himself into the knee-high snow and proceed to the front of the carriages.
At the head of the train were two northerners, a lynx and cougar, arguing with a knot of foxes, none of which looked too pleased to see the foreigners. Once one of the foxes set eyes on him, the rest were called to cast a glance at what they initially could only assume was a child of the Goredrinker. When he had reached the immediate area, their lanterns illuminated him, making clear to the Serians the newcomer was not some form of beast. Interceding in the conversation that his arrival interrupted, Sothoh spoke for the northerners, “I need to have words with whoever is in
charge of Seras now. Tell them Sothoh of Roya, the last of your Sun Bearer’s elite guard, demands entry for these folks who have been blighted by the trickery and schemes of the Goredrinker. And just as well, tell Sirian that I would care to have audience with her once I am… in more decent of appearance.”
“To accommodate so many, we would be fully beyond our own capabilities, warrior, but more importantly, we are forced into a crisis of our own presently. There are not enough young men, trained in the arts you have found yourself so well endowed in to turn back these fiends that seek to lay siege to our village,” one of the gray muzzled elders announced, a hint of shame in his eye.
Sothoh gave the two hopeful northerners a look of confidence, “A deal, perhaps. You will allow them to wheel these wagons into the village and remain until the snows have finally fled from the lands, at which time they will go on their way. For this, I will personally see to the fiends but, more importantly, answer that second need. The training of these young men who have yet to be disciplined in the means of battle, I will advise and train them as I was, better than I was.”
“I can not speak for all of Seras, this will not go so smoothly as you insist, warrior, but you have us quite pressed at the moment. Without the Bearer of the Sun, we have lost much faith. Can you tell us where she has gone if she is not among your numbers,” another elder asked, having unstooped herself to put forth her query. Yet, that answer could not escape Sothoh’s lips. He knew Sirian had not made it to Seras nor Roya, and now he was left with the same question the old, witchy fox had for him. And he cursed himself for that ignorance in knowing he could have, no should have, followed her north and kept her tail out of the path of destruction she gravitated to so diligently. There was no help for it now, nor for the ache it put deep inside the wolf, but life had to continue with or without Serian.