User:Eirik/The Road to Quint

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The Road to Quint

Author: Eirik

A figure leaned out of the darkness and peaked around the corner, pulling back into the pitch black alley after only a moment.

"What did you see?" whispered a voice next to him.

"Palace guards, they're all over the square and fanning out. We can't stay here."

Yarl nodded even though his partner couldn't see it. "Should we try the guild hall?"

Tyback snorted, "I wouldn't. After what you did, they'll raid the guild first looking for us. What under Gorn were you thinking?"

Yarl didn't feel like answering that right now, "Not now, we can go over this later. Do you think that we can get to the horses?"

"Not a prayer," he replied, thinking. "How much money do you have?"

"Three kroner, that's it. You?"

"A little more. Not much, but we can probably bribe our way onto a caravan," Tyback said hopefully. "Assuming we can get out of town."

They heard the guards approaching down the street, their chain armor echoing off the stone buildings. Yarl grabbed his partner by the shoulder and pulled him back into the alley. They silently climbed the building and got to the rooftop, taking shelter in the shadow of a large chimney. "I still say we try the guild," repeated Yarl. "We can always find someone to help us at the tavern."

Reluctantly, Tyback nodded. Getting out of the walled city tonight was hopeless, and by dawn they would enlist the help of the court wizard to find them. You didn't try to steal the purse from Crown Prince Sebast and get away with it. "Let's go."

The crossed from rooftop to rooftop as long as they could before taking to the streets again. By now, the alarm had been raised in the entire city and every soldier was looking for them. They kept to the shadows until they reached the dilapidated inn. It was one of many that was controlled by the guild. They slipped in the back and into a small dark storeroom and waited.

They didn't have to wait long. The door opened and a scruffy dwarf entered carrying a lantern and a small plate of cheese. "I figured I'd see you two fools tonight," he muttered angrily as he dropped the plate in front of them. When they didn't start to eat he waved his hand at it, "I'd take some if I were you, you're going to need to eat before you leave."

"Thanks Tyhp," said Tyback and he took a small piece. "Can you get us out of town?"

The dwarf sat down. "I will, but by all rights I should turn you in to the crown. By the Great Forge! You know the Crown is off limits! The only reason that the King tolerates the guild in Lamonter at all is because he owes us a debt! He's already had the guild hall raided looking for you two."

"I'm sorry," said Yarl. "I didn't know he was the Prince!"

The dwarf was far from understanding. "You should make it your business to know." He shook his head, "We aren't getting anywhere with this. I've already made arrangements to get you out of town. You're going to join a wool caravan going to Qint tonight."

"Qint!" exclaimed Tyback. "You're kidding! What are we supposed to do in Qint?"

The dwarf picked up the lantern, "Stay there and out of trouble. There is only a token guild in Qint but they can put you up for a few weeks. They don't operate openly, though. Sultan Hiriann doesn't look favorable on anything that would mar his desert paradise, so be careful."

"So why bother having a guild there at all?" asked Yarl.

"For fools like you," spat Tyhp. "Go out into the alley. There is a man there who will take you to the caravan. Do what he says and you'll get out of the city. Don't stop for anything, you'll be provisioned. If you choose to leave before Qint, that is your business."

Tyback nodded, "But then we forfeit our guild membership."

Tyhp smiled, "I'm glad that one of you has a brain. Part of being in the guild is taking instructions. Now go, the guards will search this place soon."

The two men skulked out the back to find the man while Tyhp went back to his usual table in the rear of the bar. He sat next to the dark man and took a long drink of his ale. "It's done," he said once he'd finished.

The guild master nodded and left without a word.

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"Is it always this hot here?" asked Yarl and he loosened his tunic.

The driver of the cart didn't even turn his head. After two weeks of complaints he wasn't interested anymore. "It's the desert, you fool," he muttered, not for the first time.

He started to open his mouth to respond when the caravan master called a halt to the wool train. The driver abruptly dismounted along with the rest of the dark skinned men and gathered in a line and began to pray. Yarl just shook his head. These superstitious heathens would be a lot further along if they just kept moving and didn't stop to pray five times a day. If they at least prayed to a proper God, it wouldn't be so bad. If they didn't sound like they were wailing it might even be better.

All Yarl could think of was getting back home as soon as possible. He already knew he was going to hate Qint.

The cluster of praying men broke up and returned to their posts. The driver looked up at him with disdain as he climbed up into the cart. "You offend Hummoder by your lack of respect."

Yarl ignored him and moved into the rear of the covered supply cart. He and Tyback had been hiding there for most of the trip and now they were far beyond the reach of Lamonter. Qint was only a few weeks away.

If they survived the heat.

"Anything going on?" asked Tyback.

Yarl shook his head, "Not really. The Qintens were wailing to their god or something. Other than that, we're making good time. I just wish I knew what we were getting into. I don't know anything about Qint and this guy isn't that friendly," he said, not caring if the driver heard. "What have you found out?"

Tyback shrugged, "Not much more. None of the drivers or guards will talk much about it. I don't think they trust us. It's just a city, though. We'll learn as we go. How different can it be than Lamonter?"

Yarl smiled and whispered, "Why don't we rob these guys blind before we get to Qint?" He leaned on a sack of beans, "I know where the caravan master keeps his gold."

Tyback grabbed his partner by the front of his sweat covered tunic, "Don't be an idiot!" he snapped. "It's because of you we're in this mess! We're going to wait until Qint, okay?" When Yarl didn't answer, he shook him once, "Okay?"

He smiled a little, "Believe me, I won't take any outrageous risks."

Tyback didn't like the look on his partners face.

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"What kind of a moron are you!" shrieked Tyback.

Yarl was too busy spitting blood out of his mouth to answer at first. When he finally came around, he just looked up and smiled between broken teeth, "I still think it was worth it."

"Worth it!" screamed Tyback, "Worth it! We're in the middle of the desert with no water, no supplies, nothing and we're still at least three days from Qint!"

Yarl wiped his hand across his mouth, "Don't worry, I've got it covered. We just need a stake to set ourselves up."

Tyback fumed, "And I'm sure you know how to get one, don't you?"

"What does a donkey go for in Lamonter?"

He blinked, "A donkey?! What does a donkey have to do with this?"

"You can sell one for twenty kroner. That's enough to start a good con, fleece these fools for whatever we can get."

"Fine, where do we get a donkey?" asked Tyback.

"Don't tell me you haven't noticed the donkey trains. One or two men with fifty donkeys! They have to be stopping at every oasis or we'd be seeing a lot of dead ones. All we need to do is find one of those and get out of sight."

"Then what?"

Yarl just smiled and started down the road.

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"I don't like this, Yarl. No one is this gullible," he muttered as he striped off his tunic. "Why don't we just steal one or two?"

"Because we don't want them to come looking for us, do we?" said Yarl. "This way we make a clean getaway."

"And why do I have to be the stand in?" he asked bitterly.

Yarl just pointed at his teeth, "They'll probably know something is wrong if the donkey had teeth and the human doesn't. Besides, you're more pitiful than I am, they'll believe you."

"No one in Lamonter would believe this. I just don't think they are..."

"They pray to a heathen God and don't even have the sense to allow the guild to operate freely. They couldn't be that smart, okay!" He looked up at the approaching cloud of dust down the road, "Keep your head down and stay quiet."

They waited until the donkey train was led into the oasis. True to form, there were just two men trailed by almost thirty tired and dusty donkeys. Without coaxing, they all lined up at the waters edge and started to drink.

Yarl and Tyback skulked through the bushes at the waters edge, staying as far from the men as possible. They reached the far end of the tied line of donkeys and waited. Once the animal had finished getting its fill, it turned to eat some of the bushes. It's ears went up when it saw the two men behind the bush, but Tyback grabbed the hemp halter and pulled it out of sight.

He pulled the halter off the donkey while Tyback finished stripping off his clothes. He dropped his tunic to the ground and slipped the halter loosely over his head. "I still don't think this is going to work," he whispered harshly.

"Quiet. Come back here as soon as you can."

Tyback grumbled, but did nothing as Yarl grabbed his clothes and led the donkey deeper into the oasis. It wasn't much longer before the two men started driving the first few animals back to the road, the thick rope tied to each halter pulling even the protesting animals along. Tyback stayed hidden as long as possible in the bushes before he came out into the open. The men leading the train never bothered to check the animals behind them.

They were long out of sight when Yarl turned his attention to the donkey. "Well boy, you should fetch a tidy sum in Qint." The donkey looked oddly at him, then started coughing, collapsing onto the ground. Yarl panicked, "Great! I stole a sick animal!"

The donkey coughed and sputtered, if it were possibly its ears even seemed to get a little shorter, it's head a little smaller. "What a fool."

Yarl stared at the animal. "You talk?" he said in amazement.

The donkey stopped coughing and looked at the man with a look of pity. "You have no idea what you've gotten into, do you? What your friend is in?" The animal shook his head. "Six months ago I was an innkeeper in Lebeth. Have you heard of Lebeth?"

Yarl shook his head, "No," he said quietly.

"The Sultan captured it with little struggle and added it to his empire. The people, the ones that weren't taken as slaves, were enemies of the Sultan. The Sultan has only one punishment for his enemies."

Yarl looked at the donkey with horror. "Tyback! I have to get him."

"You are already too late," said the donkey sadly. "He was lost the moment you put the halter over his head." The donkey coughed again, looking more and more sickly, "The halter is magic."

His stomach dropped, "Maybe there's still time! You turned back a little!"

The donkey coughed again, a sound that he realized now was a laugh. "No one is meant to be half man and half animal," he wheezed, "I'm dying. I can feel it."

"Maybe there is still time," he said.

The donkey coughed again, red foam touching his lips, "If you find him, it would be mercy to just kill him. I would rather die here than as a farm animal in the north lands." He wheezed again, "If you're going to go, go."

Yarl looked sadly at the dying animal, then jumped up and raced after the caravan.

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As the donkey lay dying, Tyback was getting a sunburn on his bare back. He kept following, waiting for the two men to notice him. He considered saying something when one of them finally turned back and looked. He did a double take, then brought the train to a stop. "Finally," muttered Tyback.

The two men exchanged a few words, then started coming back. "By Arbus, what is this?"

Tyback tried to look pitiful. "Please sir, help me!" he said. "I..."

The first guard turned to his partner, ignoring him. "Have you ever seen such a thing?"

The older man shook his head, "Not in all my travels. What do you think we do about it?"

Tyback was a little confused, but pressed on. "Please sir! I was cursed by a man to live as a donkey, but you have..."

One of the men grabbed the halter off his head and took a look at it while the other looked at the train of donkeys and counted. "Thirty plus this one. We're not missing any, he was that donkey."

The other man inspected the halter. "Maybe it just came off?" He looked more carefully at the man, "He doesn't look much like he was from Lebeth."

"I wasn't from Lebeth," corrected Tyback, "I'm from Lamonter."

The two men looked at him as if hearing him talk for the first time. "Must have been in the city. Not our concern." He adjusted the halter. "Hold him still."

Tyback reacted quickly, but not fast enough. The other man grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him to the ground. "Hey! What are you doing?!" The next thing he felt was the heavy hemp halter being pulled over his head and cinched tightly. The more he struggled against it, the tighter it got. "Stop!"

Once the halter was back on, one of the guards reattached the rope and they stepped back. "I hope this works. If it doesn't we'll have to return to Qint." The other guard nodded silently and waited.

Tyback laid on the ground a minute trying to catch his breath. The halter was on so tight that he was feeling light headed. Feebly, he tried to grab the rope and untie it, but found that he could not move his fingers well. "Why... Haw!" he said, then stopped. What happened to his voice?

There was a burst of clarity in his mind as he looked down at his hands. He suddenly realized why he wasn't able to move his fingers, they were slowly fusing together into hooves! "Hee-Haw!" he screamed out and looked at the guards, terrified.

The two men didn't react much at all. They looked as bored as men who had seen this a thousand times before. They just nodded at each other and walked forward, driving the donkeys ahead of them. Tyback struggled against the rope a moment before he was pulled along with it, stumbling on his malformed feet. His heart was pounding. What was happening to him?

The transformation seemed to progress with every step. He struggled against the rope, but he was feeling too weak to even try to break free. Tyback knew that it was the halter driving this, it had to be! He tried to push the halter off his face, but it was so tight that he couldn't budge it. He could feel that his face deforming, his tongue getting thicker. Strangely, the halter expanded with his head. He tried a couple more times before he felt his weight shift dramatically and he fell to all fours. It was awkward, his arms and legs were not the right lengths yet, but his body was quickly becoming too heavy for two legs.

He didn't have any idea how long this had all taken, perhaps only a few minutes. He sensed that he would be a donkey by the time that he made it to the next oasis. Slowly, he could feel his will to fight it fading. His will to escape was there, but being replaced by a rumble in his stomach that needed to be sated.

A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned his head and caught a sign of Yarl coming low through the dust. "Tyback?" he said in a harsh whisper. It was all he could do to nod.

Yarl grabbed the rope and untied it quickly, leading the half formed donkey behind a low dune and out of sight. He waited a few moments for the train to get a little farther away, then turned to the donkey. "I'm so sorry, I had no idea."

Tyback squinted at his partner, a rumble in his throat. The problem was that he couldn't get himself past annoyed. If he was thinking straight, he knew in his heart that he would trample the man into the sand.

"Look, we're going to go back to the oasis," he said quietly. "The donkey we stole turned back a little after you left. That's why I knew to come out here." Tyback looked hopefully at his partner even as he shook his head, reading the donkeys thoughts. "I can't just take off the halter. The other donkey died from being turned back."

The man peaked around the dune again and nodded, "They're far enough away. We'll go on to Qint and get in touch with the guild. I'm sure they can get a wizard to turn you back. It was because of them that we're in this mess!"

Tyback nodded slightly, but couldn't help feel a flash of anger when he heard the word we.

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Qint, it turned out, was a bustling city that was easily a match for size and majesty with Lamonter. It was certainly different, though. Even in the distance as they approached they could see that the buildings were almost a uniform brown, made mostly of masonry and mud bricks. The wide streets spread out like a wagon wheel with what had to be the Sultans palace at the center and wide avenues spreading outward, crisscrossed with streets.

Yarl looked at the sad donkey that trailed him. Tyback had become indistinguishable from a donkey only a few hours after he freed him from the donkey train. He was definitely changed inside, too. He was docile and didn't protest in the slightest when Yarl started riding him the rest of the way into Qint.

"Don't worry, old friend," he said assuredly as they approached the city gates, "The guild has never let us down before. I'm sure you'll be good as new in just a few days. Just hold on."

The donkey flipped his ears a couple times, but Yarl couldn't be sure if Tyback actually understood or was just trying to hear the sounds of the city better.

The gate, surprisingly, wasn't that hard to get through. The handful of men that manned it were busy inspecting some carts from a trade caravan and ignored Yarl and Tyback completely. A single man and a donkey were simply not much to worry about. The city was located on such a large, flat plain that any invading army would be spotted long before they arrived.

It was all the better for the pair of thieves, the less that they looked at him the better. He already stood out badly in the streets. Even if there were a fairly large number of traders and travelers in Qint, Yarls light skin stood out like a beacon in a crowd. He leaned forward, "What do you say we find the guild?" he whispered.

They walked through the crowded streets slowly. Yarl remembered that there was no hall here, but he still knew what to look for. It took some searching, but he found an inn with the mark of the guild over the door. He thought about tying up Tyback to a post in front but didn't want to risk the animal being stolen in this strange city. Without the guild to help, he wouldn't know where to start looking, and he didn't even know if Tyback had the mental ability anymore to fight it. He nudged the donkey forward and walked around the side of the building, leaving him tied in the quiet alley.

He slipped into the side door and looked around. The inn was definitely different than anything he had seen before. It was late afternoon, but there wasn't a single drunk yet in the dining area. In fact, he couldn't detect the scent of ale in the air at all. There was a smell, but it was of unfamiliar spices coming from the kitchen. There were a few patrons sitting and talking, but it was far from crowded.

He sat at a table in the back and surveyed the room. He waited a few moments for the serving wench to come to him. "Ale," he said simply.

The woman looked strangely at him, "Ale, sir? We don't have ale."

Yarl sighed, what kind of dump was this. "What do you have to clear my throat?"

A burly man came up behind the woman, "Get him some water, Ala." When she left, he sat down. "They must not have told you much about the city. There are no spirits here."

His mouth dropped open, aghast. "What?" he said more loudly than he intended. "What kind of idiot..."

"Quiet!" the man hissed. "It's the local religion and I'd respect that if I were you. You're not in Lamonter anymore."

Yarl nodded reluctantly, "I'm sorry. There wasn't exactly time to tell us much about the city. I've never been out of the north lands before. Yarl of Lamonter," he said extending his hand.

"I'm Golin," said the man as he took it. "The guild master wanted to meet you personally, but to be honest we expected you earlier. The caravan you were supposed to be with arrived yesterday."

"We ran into problems," he replied quietly.

The man rolled his eyes, "I have an idea. You're lucky to be alive, you know." The man frowned, "Where is your partner, by the way? Dead in the desert?"

Yarl thought a second, wondering if he should tell the guild about Tyback at all. He could just as easily sell the donkey the man had become and buy his way back to Lamonter. After a few moments, he decided that he owed it to Tyback to try and help. "It's a long story," he started as he related the encounter with the donkey train.

Golin didn't react at all until the tale was over. After Yarl stopped talking, the man sat across from him silently. Yarl was about to open his mouth again when he was slapped soundly across the face, sending him falling to the floor. "You idiot!" he snapped. When the other patrons looked up, Golin grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him into the kitchen, throwing him against the wall. "You only had to stay out of trouble! Now...!" he stammered, so angry that he could barely talk.

"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't think that it was that big a deal! We stole horses all the time!"

"You're in Qint now!" he snapped then paused as if that explained everything. Slowly, he calmed down. "Where is your friend?"

"In the alley," he said quickly. "Can you help him?"

The man sighed. "It's not that easy. Word will be sent back from the donkey train that they lost one, and the guards will be watching."

Yarl shook his head, "We went through the gate unchallenged."

Golin smiled, "You're not familiar with Qint at all, are you? You were noted. A northlander on a donkey without supplies? You were noted and word was passed around the soldiers in the streets. They are very efficient." He paused a second, then grimaced, "Brutally efficient."

"Maybe I should get out of town," he suggested, "before they realize what happened."

"We've got a few hours yet, but I'll speak to the guild master. We'll have a few hours before the guards know that they want you for something. Ideally, we should get you out without them know you're gone," he replied.

Yarl nodded quickly, "Thanks. I'm sorry that we made of mess of things."

Golin gently pushed him toward the side door. "Get your friend and bring him out back, there's a couple of small stalls back there. There's water and hay, too. Get him settled and wait there. Don't leave!" he snapped, "Get some rest, you might need to move fast."

Yarl nodded and followed the directions to the letter. Once the donkey was settled in, he was tempted to get out and see the city a little, but restrained himself. The donkey ate and drank his fill, then laid in the old hay and slept. Yarl sat against the stall door and dozed himself.

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It was dark when the door to the stable opened again. Yarl snapped awake and rolled to his feet. "Who's there?"

"It's Golin, I've spoken to the guild master," he whispered.

Yarl groaned and worked the kinks out. "What's the plan?"

"The good news is that what happened to your friend is completely reversible, but not here." He nodded his head in the general direction of the Sultans palace. "The crown here has a strong grip on the wizards and there isn't one that would help."

"So where do we go?" he asked.

"Lamonter, actually," he said with a lopsided grin.

"You're kidding!" he said. "I can't go back there! The crown wants me dead!"

Golin smiled, "Ah, that is true, but they aren't looking for a couple of donkeys, are they?"

Yarl hated the sound of that, "Couple?"

"It's the guild masters decision," he said quietly. "It's the safest way to get you out of the city. I'm traveling in two days to Lamonter anyway."

Yarl backed away, "I won't do it!" he snapped. "I'll take my chances getting out of this myself!"

Golin just shrugged, "Just like you got into this?" He sighed, "that's your choice, but you know what that means, you're no longer in the guild. Assuming you get out of this, you won't be welcome in any city of the north lands. Pick one pocket and you'll lose the hand." He smiled, "If you're lucky."

"I don't want to be a damned animal!" he snapped back.

"That's what you'll be anyway if the guards catch you," he said. "They don't tolerate thieves here. The donkey trains that you saw? They weren't all war prisoners. Some of them were thieves, con artists and robbers. If the guards catch you here, I can assure you that you'll end up gelded and pulling a plow until you drop dead of exhaustion."

Yarl trembled, he was sure that the man wasn't lying to him. "If I go with your plan?"

"You'll spend a month or two as a donkey and we'll take care of you in Lamonter. If you're really good, we might even get you out of there. Again."

"How long can I think about it?" he asked.

The man reached out to the wall and pulled a familiar halter off a peg. "Now, or you leave."

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True to his word, Golin got the pair of donkeys out the gates of the city without incident. The guards looked only a moment at the two animals, recognizing their status as former humans, a state so common that they didn't think twice. The trip across the desert was uneventful. The donkeys were perfectly behaved when working, neither protested their treatment as they pulled the small cart. By function of the hemp halters that they wore, neither could.

When they weren't pulling, the donkey that had been Tyback tended to kick and bite the other. Even the magic of the halters couldn't prevent that.

They passed through the gates of Lamonter with little more of a look than they had leaving Qint. By dark, the two donkeys were standing in stalls behind the guild hall, thinner for their long journey. They weren't totally animals, both could still remember being human. It just wasn't as important as fresh hay and water. Even when the magic halters were removed, they couldn't bring themselves to think beyond the immediacy of they're needs.

Golin left the donkeys and entered the guild hall. He told the serving woman who he was and who was with him, then waited. It wasn't long before he was joined by the guild master who handed him a mug of ale and sat. "I understand you brought back a couple of idiots," he said simply.

He nodded, "They're in the stable out back," he said as he explained what had happened. "What should we do with them?" he finished.

The guild master stared at Golin a few moments, then laughed and laughed, wiping tears from his eyes as he finished. "Don't worry, don't worry, we'll let them tow wagons a while for us until they've learned their lesson. After that, I'll have them turned them back." He laughed again and took a long, deep drink of ale.

The subject of Tyback and Yarl never came up again.