This is the eleventh chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Evening brought with it the promise of hot food and peaceful sleep, but that was a promise Brand’s new companions seemed intent on breaking.
Initially, Brand had been ignored and left to dissect his collection of corpses. But while the band performers were happy to ignore the man himself, their conversation was focused entirely on him. As he quietly went about the business of disemboweling the bear a safe distance from camp, he could discern heated debates about his name, age, attire, heritage, intentions, and so forth. He had initially wondered why they didn’t just ask him, but it became increasingly apparent that this group spent every waking hour in each other’s company and having anything new to argue about was a welcome novelty. Had they simply asked for the correct answers, it would have spoilt the joy of wild speculation and uninformed debate.
Finished with his butchering, Brand approached the fire and the debate quickly changed to which bits of the bear to eat, which to smoke, and whether anyone wanted to try the badger. Brand, himself, was barely acknowledged before he was again shooed away to change into some clothes that had been reluctantly donated by Jaymes for the benefit of all. Then the trial began.
He was grabbed by Igor and dragged into the light of the fire where he was subjected to the brutal and terrifying process of formal introductions. “You already know Jaymes,” said Igor in his distressingly jovial way. “He plays the fiddle for us now. He used to be Callidus’ assistant, but that is your job now.”
Disconcerting laughter erupted from the group at that announcement and the joke was left pointedly unexplained as Igor continued. “This is Miriam and this is Gregor; they are also musicians,” he said, gesturing to an entirely ordinary elderly couple which smiled back at him pleasantly.
“Very much a pleasure,” said Gregor.
“Charmed,” said Miriam.
Brand responded with panicked silence. His brief time on the cart with Jaymes had not prepared him for such intense social pleasantries.
“Next is our young one, Felisia,” Igor bubbled as he pointed Brand at the lithe young woman. She stared at Brand ferociously from behind her tousled bangs and he stared back defiantly from behind his.
This exchange felt familiar. It was a language he understood. He was in her territory; she was sizing him up before the claws came out. He calculated the distance between him and his spear. “Pleasure,” snarled Felisia, fidgeting with a knife.
“Likewise,” replied Brand coolly, preparing for the attack.
Too focused on the obvious threat, he was assaulted from behind. “This is Yannis and his partner Ivan.” Igor grabbed Brand around the shoulder and bounced him over to the acrobats, who immediately descended on him with vicious camaraderie.
“Wilcome, wilcome, wilcome. We are wery pleased to meet you,” Yannis jabbered excitedly as he vigorously shook Brand’s hand. There was more, but Brand had difficulty understanding the chatter through Yan’s thick accent.
Ivan bowed and shook his other hand politely, unable to add much more than another “wilcome” to the incomprehensible deluge pouring forth from his partner.
Igor eventually pulled Brand out of the reach of his enthusiastic assailants and waved into the darkness. “Callidus is around somewhere, he’ll talk to you when is suits him.” Igor seemed a little disappointed at the manners of the wizard, but moved on quickly.
Callidus did, however, greet Brand in his own way. Staring out into the darkness beyond the fire, the wizard melted into view from the shadows and gave a half-hearted salute with his flask before fading back into the night. The gesture left Brand a little uncertain if it was a genuine greeting or an expression of disdain.
He had little time to ruminate before he was brought swung about to face a woman for whom he was not at all prepared. She was stunning. Brand was vaguely aware that Igor was speaking to him, but the sound of his voice was being drowned out by the brilliance of her eyes. The woman’s curly orange hair bounced around her warm smile. The tunic she wore hung loosely on her shoulders and breasts and her leather breeches hugged her wide, curving hips snugly. Brand was felt as though someone was sitting on his chest.
It was Illea, no longer dressed in scant fur coverings, but instead in a man’s work-wear. The memory of her exposed skin and the image of her now, dressed with such disregard for the proper order of things, stirred the demon and made his whole body want to shudder. “Stay very still,” she said enticingly.
Brand stood, utterly motionless. He stared dumbly at her gently smiling lips as she strode smoothly up to him and took his hand. His heart jumped as she touched the skin of his wrist and was then shocked when a warm wet burst of air hit his palm.
He looked down, startled, to find a black and orange cat nearly twice his size sniffing at his hand. He tried to shout, but his voice was apparently still in Illea’s possession. He tried to jump back, but Igor held him firmly in place. He started to panic and evil thoughts began to manifest themselves and grow into action, but a soothing voice in his ear washed away the alarm.
“Relax,” said Illea softly. “This is Natali. She needs to decide if she likes you.”
“If she doesn’t?” Brand managed to sputter out.
“She will if you relax,” she said, keeping his hand firmly in place for Natali’s inspection.
It seemed like an eternity of sniffing and prodding, but slowly his heart settled and Igor and Illea released their hold, and left him to his own devices. Natali snorted and sniffed and licked at him as he stood frozen in place. He beat down his instincts to both flee and fight as the massive animal buried its nose in his crotch and tasted his ankles.
Having come to some sort of conclusion, the firecat grunted, nuzzled Brand hard enough to knock him over, and promptly sat on him.
“She definitely likes you!” exclaimed Illea, clapping.
Brand struggled for air and tried to nudge the monster, in an encouraging sort of way, off of his chest. This seemed, instead, to be interpreted as an invitation for the cat to lie down and start chewing on Brand’s hair.
A gesture from Illea brought the firecat away and allowed Brand to return, gasping, to his feet. “What,” he choked out. “…would have happened if she did not like me?”
“She would have snorted at you and wandered off,” smiled Illea.
“I think I would have liked that better.”
This brought hearty laughter from the bystanders that had been watching Brand suffer, but it was cut off sharply. “Enough!” snapped a woman’s voice from behind him.
He wheeled around. Sitting cross legged behind a low table, on a rainbow of blankets and pillows, was Estheria, the seer. She looked as though she had been there for quite some time but Brand was certain that she hadn’t been there moments before. Where had she come from and how had she gotten there? More puzzling was that nobody else seemed at all surprised that she had just materialized in the middle of camp.
Brand met her eyes, but her gaze seemed to pass through him, into his mind and soul. She continued to inspect his inner workings for some time before reaching some sort of conclusion. She nodded settled herself into a number of pillows before indicating a similar, if less plush and vibrant, seat across the table. “Sit,” she commanded.