By early morning sunlight, Tyrel gazed in awe at the river Kieran had been aiming for. The rivers near the forts and towns were mere streams, compared to this torrent. There was no sign of a ford or a bridge anywhere that he could see—at least with his somewhat limited vulpine vision.
Kieran paused at the edge, dropped the pack and raised his head to scent the air. He must have detected something, because he reclaimed the pack and set off downriver.
The sun was high when he halted again, left the pack tucked under a bush, and moved forward more cautiously. Tyrel and Kaveri took the hint and stayed close and quiet. They crept through the underbrush, halting when they ran out of cover.
There was a road there, interrupted by the river; a wooden bridge, supported by pilings in the water and wide enough for a wagon, spanned the gap. A steady slow trickle of people travelled in both directions: a painted wooden caravan drawn by a mule, a few wagons drawn by oxen or workhorses, someone on foot leading a trio of donkeys carrying substantial packs, a cart drawn by a short-coated dog that must be almost as big as Kieran with a human walking beside.
Kieran wriggled backwards out of the brush. The smaller pair found it much easier to simply turn around without drawing attention. Next to the pack, Kieran flopped to the ground and rested his head on his paws.
He was right, Tyrel conceded. There was no way a fox, a raccoon, and an amarog, with or without a pack, would get across the bridge without drawing entirely too much attention. Better to slip across unnoticed, not risking creating an incident.
Still brimming over with Talir’s energy, Tyrel couldn’t bring himself to just lie down and wait. He went prowling instead. He explored the woods for a while, but his curiosity about all the people was stronger. He hadn’t known there was much trade between the towns and outside places. Or were they just taking this route to another destination? That seemed unwise. Possibly a bargain made by a nearby town, with a high tax on the goods coming in and out, could win them relative safety, but without that, any fort close to a route like this would consider it low-hanging fruit, an easy game in idle moments.
He inched closer and closer, under the cover of the brush, keeping low to the ground. Being small was rather an advantage in stealth, he decided.
Two wagons, each drawn by a pair of oxen, crossed the bridge one after the other. The one behind shouted to the other, and they both drew to the side and halted. The driver of the rear wagon jumped down and strode across the thin border of grass in Tyrel’s direction.
Tyrel cringed back, wishing he had his katari and the hands to wield them.
It became apparent immediately that the man wasn’t even aware of him, and had only stopped to empty his bladder against a tree. He returned to his wagon without ever having seen the lurking fox.
Tyrel saw a rich-looking coach, its team of matched white horses in harness that jingled with shiny decoration. Armed fighters surrounded it—his nose picked up leather and bronze, strongly. Most of the traffic he saw, though, consisted of wagons, in both directions. It slowed somewhat as the sky darkened; no more came from the far side. Was there a place over there to spend the night, maybe?
Soft footsteps made him look back, and then up at Kieran, now in human form with the pack slung on one shoulder, and Kaveri, in her usual crisscrossed top and loincloth.
“There you are,” Kieran said, his tone amused. “The moons are up. I suggest you find a place where you can see Talir, without being in full view of the road, unless you wish to be a pet.”
Tyrel shook himself all over, rejecting the idea, and padded into deeper cover, watching for patches of yellow light coming through the trees. It took him a few minutes to locate a place with enough of a view that he could look up at the topaz moon and ask for his real form back.
It was harder finding his way back to where he’d left Kieran and Kaveri on two feet than it had been making the reverse journey on four feet.
Kieran was making things from the trickles of moonlight that reached him. Kaveri was now wearing sandals, thick fabric soles with lacing crossing and recrossing and tying around her ankles, and a light-hued skin-hugging shirt with a low rounded neck and snug elbow-length sleeves but that left her belly bare. Over her loincloth she was just now tying a wide triangle of dark cloth, wrapped twice around her waist so the point fell to mid-calf directly below the knot on her right hip. Kieran handed her a final dark article, a kind of waist-length open-fronted jacket with short loose sleeves. She tucked the butterfly knife Tyrel had given her into the folds of her skirt, half-hidden by the knot.
“At the borders, many people pass, but best if you do not attract unnecessary attention,” Kieran said. “That would be unremarkable anywhere for some distance across the river.” He looked Tyrel over measuringly—shirt, doublet, trousers, low boots—then swung the pack into reach and opened it. Tyrel caught his weapons belt in midair, and buckled it into place with a deep sense of relief. The familiar weight of his katar, the pressure of the lower strap around his thigh holding it in place, was comforting, though he missed his off-hand one still. The simple dagger on his left just wasn’t the same.
“Do not draw a blade on anyone once we cross the river, unless I tell you it is safe to,” Kieran said. “It would be better to leave them packed, but you will feel better having them, I think.” He refastened the pack, adjusted it on his own shoulder, and nodded towards the road.
The few wagons remaining on the road seemed in a hurry to cross the bridge, and paid no attention at all to the trio of travellers.
Crossing the bridge was almost anticlimactic, absolutely uneventful.
“Follow the road, “ Kieran said. The road ran up a hill on this side, in a kind of zigzag. At the top of the slope was a single-story stone building, with a tower three or four times that height beside it. “You now stand in Faton Province, in the country of Lutrim.” He glanced at them and smiled. “The world is a far larger and more diverse place than either of you has ever imagined, I think. There will be an inn not far past the border tower, and a town farther along this road. You have a great deal to learn, and there is no time like now to begin, hm?”
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