Where the Wind Blows Wild: Part Four
Corbin had officially decided that their life of crime was over. Somehow they'd gone from "grab the Arnsian and get out of here" to holding a little Usul woman hostage. With an entirely non-harmful mDB Experiometer. And they were about five feet from a highly unhappy, highly armed Master Thief who was clearly about to call their bluff.
And said Master Thief was the one holding the statue of Svar and Grandfather.
Then the Usul kicked Kell hard in the shin. He staggered back, and she was immediately on him, pushing him down to the floor and punching him as she did. At the same time, Kanrik rushed Corbin – Corbin barely managed to dodge the sword, and the Experiometer was knocked out of his hands.
Over the rail.
Onto the floor below.
It shattered with a loud crash that echoed in the stone hall, and they all froze. Kanrik said, "Sweet Fyora – Hannah, let go of the idiot before Masila gets out here!"
Masila? That Acara Mayor Marius had been talking to was Masila? The Mistress of the Double-Cross? Corbin and Kell were definitely out of their depth – but they'd heard what she'd said. She wanted to expose the Stone Shepherds, use them to draw tourists here. That made her their enemy, no matter how scary she was. He said, "You need to give us that statue. It needs to get out of Brilforge, away from these mountains, and away from anyone who might know what it means!"
Kanrik scowled. "And I ought to just hand it to you why?"
Kanrik must have heard what Masila had said. Corbin couldn't do any more harm to Svar and his kindred by speaking out. "Because I know both the people in that statue. The Kougra is our grandfather Mordecai, and that's Svar of the Stone Shepherds."
The eyes of the Usul – Hannah, Kanrik had called her – widened. "So they're real? The tales I've heard of them in these parts are true?"
Corbin said, "Hand us the statue and we'll explain everything as soon as we get somewhere where neither Masila nor the cold will get us."
Kell added, "Given as that crazy Usul nearly broke my ankle, we're not about to outrun you guys."
Hannah snapped, "Try to use me as a hostage again and I'll break a lot more than just your ankle."
Footsteps in the hallway – the tall Gelert hissed, "Run! Out the front – that weapon of yours took care of any need for stealth!"
They started running – Kell panted, "It wasn't even a weapon! It was a mDB Experiometer! It measures sound waves!"
Kanrik sighed as he threw the front door of the manor open. "You held Hannah hostage with a science experiment?"
That was from the top of the stairs. Kanrik said, "Fyora blast it, Masila saw me! Run, run, run!"
Corbin nearly tripped over Hannah's tail before Kell reached out a hand to steady him. As they threw themselves down the front steps, Kell said, "We can't go back to Celestina's. We can't lead people like Masila there."
Corbin had a flash of an idea. It was probably a bad idea. But they'd had enough bad ideas already that there was no room left for any good ones. As they headed down the street toward the inn, Corbin said, "We take them to Svar and Magjan. Hide out up there. It'll be a lot harder to follow us – there aren't any trails, it's lots of bare rock, no one to see us pass by. And maybe if they meet them, meet them and little Khijik, they'll understand why the Stone Shepherds need to be protected."
Kell said, "You're right. That is a stupid idea."
Corbin retorted, "So was trying to hold Hannah hostage. And that was your stupid idea."
Kell snapped, "And pretending the mDB Experiometer was a weapon?"
Corbin insisted, "It worked! They thought it was a weapon!"
"And now it's broken!"
"You made it out of junk anyway – build another one!"
Kanrik looked back at them. "Shut up, you two, unless you have anything helpful to add!"
Corbin said, "We do – we have a place to lie low where Masila shouldn't be able to follow us. Or Marius and his thugs."
Kanrik finished boosting Hannah up to a second-story windowsill, climbed down off the water barrel he'd used to do so, and turned to look at them, raising an eyebrow delicately. Corbin said, before he lost his nerve, "The home of the Stone Shepherds. If we go quickly, we should be able to make it there by midnight. We've stayed with Svar and Magjan before – ever since we rescued their son Khijik, they've been very fond of us. They'll give us shelter. There's no real path, and lots of it's over bare rock. There's not a tracker alive that could follow us." Since he and Kell often found themselves running from creatures with much sharper senses than they, their father had drilled all sorts of techniques into them for evading pursuit.
Hannah leaned out the window, eyes wide. "We get to meet them? We really get to meet them?" She tossed two packs over, and Kanrik caught them. Corbin and Kell had known they'd have to leave town quickly, and already wore their own backpacks.
Kanrik sighed. "I can see whose side you're on. If we get eaten, I'm blaming you."
Corbin protested, "Look at their teeth! They only eat plants! Svar wouldn't hurt anybody!"
Then Hannah leapt from the windowsill into Kanrik's outstretched arms – he set her down lightly before Corbin could so much as gasp at the recklessness of it. He wouldn't want to try catching Kell – his little brother might be short, but Corbin was pretty sure he stuffed his trousers with concrete.
Kanrik said, "Now lead the way, you two, and if you're leading us false..."
He didn't need to finish the threat. He had his sword and his knife in his hands, and they said all that was necessary.
The wind blew wild and cold, as it did so often in these northern mountains – Magjan had a song about it that she sang as she worked. Corbin pulled his jacket close and rearranged his scarf to cover up his mouth and nose. The air hurt to breathe, and there was a bit of cold rain or sleet in the wind that made it feel far colder than it was already.
They moved quickly and silently – Corbin and Kell took the lead as they headed out of town, and circled it at a safe distance to move east and further up in the mountains, where the Stone Shepherds dwelt. Svar and Magjan actually dwelt fairly low in the mountains for their kind – Corbin knew that there were more Stone Shepherds up in the mountains, but he didn't know how many, or where. He didn't blame Svar and Magjan for not telling them. He might not have either, in their place.
They stopped as they left Brilforge behind to light two lanterns – Hannah took one and Corbin the other. Kell said, "Remember, Svar and Magjan are our hosts. Don't steal anything."
Hannah giggled. Corbin looked back in time to catch Kanrik's scowl. "Of course. Because stealing from someone that much bigger than me was a great idea."
Hannah said, "I can't wait to meet them. Or," she added pensively, "get out of this weather. Why does anyone live here? And I live in Happy Valley!"
Kell said, taking a tone of voice that Corbin had long associated with his little brother showing off, "The Stone Shepherds thrive in these temperatures. It would take a full-scale Terror Mountain whiteout to really make one of them suffer. And they don't go that far north. Granddad said they only live in the spine of the Whites – they don't venture up to Terror Mountain and that range, and as far as he knew they didn't live in the Steelsides in the far south – that's mostly the Razorwings and the Kentorgani."
Hannah asked, "The what?" Corbin turned to look at her as they started walking again – her eyes were wide and excited. How did she manage to travel with someone as dour as Kanrik without them driving each other insane?
Corbin shook his head. "Later, maybe." Or never. The Kentorgani especially were marvelous craftsmen, and the last thing they needed were their goods showing up on the Neopian black market.
But there was little more conversation as they started up into the mountains. Kell and Corbin needed to remain focused on looking for the landmarks that marked the path to Svar's cave home, and everyone was far too tired for chat once the climb became especially uphill. Tired and, if they were anything like Corbin, worried. He and Kell were in trouble. They were small-town guys. Wanderers. They liked places as wild as possible – the sort of places where monsters lived, either hidden from or in opposition to whoever lived nearby. And now Kanrik and Masila were involved. Those two both had faces that were known all over Neopia!
But she was going to expose the Stone Shepherds. There had been enough damage done when Khijik had somehow turned into Scarlet and then snuck down to Neovia and the Spooky Food Eating Contest. And Corbin and Kell had taken oaths to their father to protect all the inhabitants of Neopia from each other, Neopian, Faerie, Petpet, Petpetpet, and monster alike. He used that determination to force himself up the path, step by weary step. The bare stone was slick in many spots from the sleet and rain, which only got heavier as the hours wore on.
He looked back – Kanrik was now holding the lantern in one arm as he half-supported Hannah with the other. The Master Thief said, "The weather's even worse than we'd thought it was going to be, and we don't have our Terror Mountain gear. She's getting cold – she's the smallest of us. If we don't get to shelter soon, she'll be in trouble. And the rest of us will be, too."
Corbin nodded – his feet had been so cold they hurt a while back, but now they were merely numb. He and Kell had planned to go back to Celestina's and leave town in the morning. He should have known better – or at least put his extra pair of socks on his feet while they still could have done him some good. "Not much longer."
They passed a standing stone that would have looked natural to someone who didn't know what to look for. Kell cupped his hands to his mouth. "Hallo!"
A deep bellow resounded in reply – Corbin turned just so he could see their companion's faces. In the lantern light, Hannah's heavy-lidded eyes had widened, and even Kanrik looked a little unnerved. Corbin held the lantern higher and continued on.
Soon they were met by Svar, whose big face was creased. He said in his slow, rumbling accent, "The weather this night – bad. Why wandering?"
Corbin said, "We were chased out of town – but not pursued this far. These are two... acquaintances... of ours. Could you give us shelter for the night, Svar? There's a problem." While Svar spoke Neopian Common strangely, he understood every word – he was old, more than a century old, and extremely intelligent.
Svar sniffed, then held out a massive hand toward Kanrik and Hannah. "Little one is cold. Come. Warmth and food by our fireside."
Kanrik merely nodded, somewhat stiffly. "We'd be grateful."
Svar nodded in return. "Come."
They followed – on his cloven hoofs, he moved as though the rocky mountain slope was a cobbled street, using his wings to allow himself to bound from stone to stone. Cold as he was, it was all Corbin could do to stumble along after him. Soon they came to the small stand of trees that camouflaged the mouth of the cave. Magjan was within at the fire, cooking something on a hot stone. Back in the Shepherds' sleeping alcove, a snoring pile of blankets was identifiable as little Khijik. Corbin smiled – this was one of the simplest, coziest family homes he knew of, and he was always glad to come here for a visit, even in circumstances like these.
Especially because of the sensibility of the Stone Shepherds. Magjan merely said, "Tired. Cold. Story in morning. Rest now."
Corbin was glad to obey – he went into their bathing chamber to put on his dry clothes, then wrapped himself in the large, thick blanket that he was given.
He was asleep as soon as he laid himself down in front of the fire.
To be continued...