A low fire crackled in the predawn several miles north of the segmented city of Moorhenda. Sytheis Tia Menrha, a young wordsmith, prodded the flames idly with a stick to keep the fire burning. It cast a red light through the trees around him, illuminating the sleeping forms of his unlikely companions.
Strange circumstances had him working the a Banndnori mason called Fortas Tillor, a beggar child known as Chipper and two street thugs known as Rantier Zalnot and Bibbi. Together they had entered the inner city’s sewers to hunt a monster but had ended up fleeing for their lives from Draknori warriors who were thought to be long dead. Their escape had left them in woods miles from the city with one less man than they had begun with.
The sleep that Sytheis had managed only served to stiffen his battered limbs. He had been set to watch the camp for an hour now and that time had been spent trying to loosen up his protesting muscles. There was little else to do. His journal and ink bottles had been destroyed and he had left his instruments back at his room. Luckily his Klash cards had survived inside their waterproof case but he had no desire to handle them in his numb hands.
The air was humid and warm even without the fire. Sweat prickled his skin. He stood up and stretched before walking a short distance from the camp to gather more wood. The sun would be rising soon but a meal of cooked rabbit before they set off would go down a treat. Rantier had assured them that he could catch something for them.
There was a rustle and a crack behind him back in the camp. One of the others must have woken. He grabbed a few fallen bits of dried out wood and began to head back to the fire. He hummed lightly to himself as he went.
Something struck him in the head. He stumbled, looking around wildly. A figure stood at his side. Fear that the Draknori had caught them up spiked through him but the figure was too small. Too small to be a Draknori but still taller and broader than Sytheis. Something sharp dug into his back.
“Don’t move,” ordered a gruff voice thick with the rough accents of the north country. “Drop the wood.”
Sytheis obeyed. the wood thudded to the parched ground then wide hands grabbed his arms, pulling them back and tying them with rope. He was pushed forward until he staggered into the light of the camp and was thrown to the floor.
Men in blacks and browns filled the tiny. They had weatherworn faces and held weapons that looked like they had seen plenty of use. Bibbi, Fortas and the boy were huddled together, tied up just like Sytheis. Rantier was facedown in the dirt with a man keeping him there with a boot place firmly between his shoulders and a blade at his throat.
“That all of them?” asked a deep voice.
A man stepped into Sytheis’ line of site who towered over those around him. He wore simple armour like the other men and was completely clean shaven with a tattoo of a hand that ran across his left cheek. An engraved battleaxe hung from a loop on his belt. By the way that he held himself it was obvious that he commanded the others.
“Ka,” answered the man who held down Rantier. “Marks on ground where men slept. Five marks five, four men and the boy.”
“Good. Get them up. We waste no time here,” the leader ordered.
Sytheis was manhandled to his feet. “We have nothing worth taking but the clothes on or backs. We don’t even have food. Look at us. No one will pay a ransom for us either,” he pointed out desperately as he was dragged past the leader.
“Shut it!” hissed the man holding him. Sytheis tried to speak again and received a punch to the stomach for his effort.
“You misunderstand,” jeered the tattooed man. “Bodies are worth more than the items they might carry.”
“Slavery? That’s been illegal for fifty years.”
The bald man backhanded him across the face. “Everything that makes money is illegal. That makes the trade more lucrative. Throw them with the others. I want to be at Hensalt’s cave by midday.”
They were taken a short way through the woods to where there was a line of dejected men and women who were chained together in two long lines. More armed men stood guard over them. All in all there were three women, nine men and ten slavers.The clothes of the captives varied enough to suggest that they had been taken from several different places.
The slavers dragged the group over to the lines and began to shackle them into place. After being hit for speaking, Sytheis had the wits not to fight. Rantier did not. He headbutted the slaver behind him and proceeded to try and choke the man with the length of chain. Other slavers rushed in and beat him down with brutal vigor.
They were marched in complete silence through the woods for hours until the sun was blazing down upon them from above. Any misstep was punished with a crack from a whip held by a weasel faced man who seemed to revel in the cries of pain. Whether he was hurting a full grown man, he young Chipper or a woman made no difference to him.
Pain and weariness consumed Sytheis’ thoughts but he did manage to keep his ears open to the brief conversations between the slavers. He was able to learn that their leader went by the name Skerge and that the weasel faced man was called Kaykus. They spoke little around their captives though so Sytheis could glean nothing of any real importance.
The march was gruelling. The pace that they were expected to keep was almost impossible and they were not allowed even a minute’s break until they finally came to a stop at a wide-mouthed cave in a denser part of the forest. There another man greeted the slavers and Sytheis and the others were herded inside of the cave.
There was nothing inside of the cave. It extended back a short way until the light from outside could reach no further and darkness prevailed. They clustered in this darkness while the slavers stood guard at the cave’s mouth.
Skerge and the new man walked a short distance away to talk. The other slavers chattered to themselves and began to set up a rough camp. They kept their eyes on the cave but seemed uninterested in what their captives did within.
Rantier and Bibbi had begun to talk. Nobody else spoke. Sytheis gazed across at all the faces around them. Each one was pale with downcast eyes and slumped postures. They didn’t even look at each other. It was not a good sign for any attempt at an escape.
He sidled up closer to Fortas and Chipper as much as the chains would allow. The boy had slumped to the ground and had tear stained eyes. Fortas looked dazed but met Sytheis’ eyes with a determined glint in his own.
“Know anything about these guys? Rumours of folk going missing or recognise the name Skerge?” Sytheis asked in a low voice.
Fortas shook his head. “Don’t talk to many from outside the city. Don’t much listen to the tellers either.”
Chipper was snivelling. He too shook his head but didn’t say a word. Then Rantier forced his way to them, dragging Bibbi and another man who he was connected to along with him.
“I don’t know about people going missing, no more than ever anyway, but I do know the name. Skerge Drent. Was a Banndnori soldier turned bandit. A guy I used to work with ran with them before he came to Moorhenda for an easier life. He’s dead now. Anyway, he told me that Skerge was ruthless but smart. A natural leader. I’d say we’re dealing with a professional, not just some schmuck who has seen an opportunity and taken it.”
“We have to get back to Moorhenda. Any ideas?”
“There’s no escape,” came a thin, defeated voice behind them. Sytheis and the others turned to the other captives but it was not obvious which had spoken. The voice came again from the centre of a tightly packed group. “Few tried. All failed. One man or woman runs and everyone suffers. Really suffers.”
“So you intend to do nothing? Become slaves?” Rantier said fiercely. He spoke loud enough to make the men and women flinch at the words.
“You will learn.”
Rantier spat. “I don’t intend to wait around long enough for them to teach me. You wretches make me sick. Grow some backbone!”
“Quiet!” roared one of the slavers. “Lay down, shut up and sleep. We march again at dusk.”
At the man’s words, the captives lowered themselves to the floor almost as one entity. Finding themselves the only ones standing, Sytheis and the other sat themselves down as closely together as they could.
It was not long since they had slept last but their bodies were still tired from the events in the sewers and the day’s march had been far from easy. They tried to whisper plans but nothing immediate came to mind that would help in an escape attempt. The other captives would not even think of aiding them without a foolproof plan, the chains that bound them were too thick to easily break and there was little to no hope of outside help. When their ideas ran dry they eventually succumbed to sleep.
Sytheis felt as though he had only just dozed off when he was snapped into consciousness by a kick to his side. The kicks kept coming until he scrambled up to his feet. There was no sunlight outside anymore. The only light came from torches held by several of the slavers.
“Up off yer arses! There’s lotsa ground to cover before sun up. No time to waste. Up! Up! Up!” shouted a slaver. Each of his sentences was punctuated with a kick to somebody’s ribs. Very quickly everyone was standing.
No food or water was handed out before they were marched from the cave to begin the night’s travel. Even Rantier cased no trouble. That they had agreed upon. They were to observe and learn to see if any useful information could be gained.
Sytheis tried to look everywhere at once. It was clear that they were heading north but the scenery gave nothing else away. Their path curved every so often, presumably to avoid settlements, and the ground gradually began to slope upwards. The trees became no less dense but the soil grew more rocky and the number of hills increased noticeably.
The going was tough. Bibbi had taken to supporting Chipper where he could. He had formed an unlikely bond with the boy, perhaps due to his own childlike mind. Bibbi wasn’t exactly stupid but he was slow of thought and had an enthusiasm for the world like only a child could have. Chipper himself was only a shade of his usual cheerful nature. He had not spoken at all since their capture.
Night passed by without incident. The sun rose and still they marched. Just before noon they arrived at a small clearing where they gratefully made camp. Only now did the slavers hand out small flasks of water and flat bread. For themselves they cooked a stew from freshly caught rabbits.
Kaykus, the weasel-faced man, stalked through the lines of captives. He looked each in the face before stopping at one of the women. She was fair haired with rosy skin and delicate features. Sytheis guessed that she was the wife of a wealthy merchant or someone of the like.
“You,” he told her sharply.
She whimpered and shrank back. Kaykus grabbed a handful of her unbrushed hair and yanked her up. He unlocked her bond and dragged her across the clearing where he tore at her clothes. She screamed and he punched her across the jaw.
Fire flared inside of Sytheis. He made to force his way over there, to do anything to stop the bastard. Rantier pulled him back down and pinned him in place.
“Think, damn it! You’re suppose to be smart. You can’t fight him, even if you weren’t tied up without a weapon. Not to mention all the others. I know their kind well. This is a test as much as an act of petty pleasure. How many of these men do you think tried to stop them the first time?” he asked as he indicated the other captives. None of them had stirred as the woman had been taken from them. “It shows who still has a will to fight. Then it is beaten from them. There is nothing you can do.”
“Damn it!” Sytheis snarled. “We suppose to just ignore it? She is screaming. Crying! I-”
“I have eyes and ears too. As things stand we can only make things worse. They see that it triggers us and they will take all the more joy from it. Just keep your head down and be glad the gods blessed you with a prick.”
The closest captive twitched. “Not just women,” he slurred. It appeared that he had broken his jaw recently.
“They don’t just take women. They… They also… also…” he broke down in sobs.
“Fires above…” Fortas breathed. Sytheis was too shocked to even think of words.
They were told to sleep soon after. Sytheis felt deathly tired but could find no rest at all. It was too bright and too warm but more than that, every time he closed his eyes he could see the woman’s pained face. He saw her suffering while he just sat still and did nothing.
He was not naive. He knew that pillaging and rape happened on a terrifyingly common basis, but to see it right in front of his eyes was something else completely. He had a younger sister somewhere in the world, probably still back home in Tia. The thought that it could happen to her made him feel sick to the very depths of his soul.
The night saw a new addition to the line of captives. He was a hunter who had been tracking some nocturnal animal but had instead found the slavers. He had fought well, stabbing one of the men in the shoulder, but had stood no chance from the start. He had been beaten down and suffered a broken arm in return for the blood spilt.
Days passed and Sytheis began to grow into the pattern of this new life. He begrudged that fact. There was little that could be done about it though. Nobody had any energy to spare to do anything beyond the grueling daily march. They were into the north country propper now. Mountains were visible in the distance, the terrain was more rugged by the day and the air was rapidly cooling. At first this was a welcome change as the heat had been unbearable but soon enough the nights had grown bitterly cold and nobody except for the slavers had come with warm clothes.
For all outside signs, Sytheis and the others had become as submissive as any of the other captives. It was not a hard act. Lack of food and sleep left them as little more than shells of themselves. Luckily, none of them had attracted any unwanted attention. It was only a matter of time though until it was one of their turns to be pulled away from the group.
It all came to a head during the second week of travelling when they made camp at the foot of a lone mountain. Things proceeded like usual until Kaykus made his rounds and stopped in front of Chipper.
“I think it’s time you step up and become a man. I like ‘em tight.”
Sytheis lunged but Bibbi beat him to it. He slammed his head into Kaykus’ nose with a mighty roar and made to wrap the chains that hung from his arms around the man’s neck. Kayus was ready though and slashed at Bibbi’s hamstring with a sleek knife. Other slavers rushed in to keep Sytheis and any other captives from helping.
“Looks like we have a volunteer. You that eager for some affection? Daddy not love you? I can certainly… rectify that.” The grin that twisted Kaykus’ face belonged on no human. He grabbed Bibbi to drag him away.
Chipper thrashed and screamed in a frantic attempt the reach Bibbi. Sytheis and Rantier tried to force their way past the ring of slavers. Even the timid Fortas shoved at the men with bloodlust in his eyes. The slavers beat them all down without mercy.
When Bibbi returned to them later he did not speak. His eyes were glazed and his expression was completely void of emotion. He lowered himself awkwardly down while another slaver fastened him back onto the chain line. Rantier tried to speak to him but the man did not acknowledge anything outside of his own mind.
The next day things were different. Skerge’s group met up with two other slave convoys in a shallow valley. The three groups came together to form one large camp a few hours earlier than usual. There looked to be somewhere between fifty and seventy people in the valley, almost half of which were the slavers themselves.
Sytheis, Fortas and Rantier sat together as they ate. The street thug had been extra determined to escape after the events of the prior day. He filled them in on his thoughts in an eager but quiet voice.
“I think that I can get us free. Trouble is that free from chains does not mean that we are free to escape. There are a lot of slavers who would chase us, there’d not be enough weapons and we’d have nowhere to run. For all we know there could be nought but forests and bloody mountains for miles around. Weak as we are and without tools I don’t know that we’d be able to survive out there alone.”
“Banndnor has many small villages scattered throughout the forests and mountains,” Fortas told them. If we could find where a nearby village is we could run there to stock up. Any true Banndnori would offer us their help.”
“Don’t forget that most of the slavers are Banndnori too,” Sytheis pointed out dryly. “And anyway, assume we can escape. What about the other slaves. We can’t just leave them to their fate.”
“Of course we can,” Rantier all but sneered. “See them trying to free us? No. If they can’t be arsed to help themselves even then why should we make the effort? Only one person in this world matters to me and that is Rantier Zalnot.”
“The wordsmith is right,” said a quiet voice behind them. They turned to see Bibbi approach, Chipper clinging to him tightly. It was the first thing that he had said since the previous day. “It would be kinder to kill these people than to leave them. I want to help them. I want to kill the bad men. Rantier, we’ve always done bad things but this…”
Rantier sniffed. “Don’t know about helping folk but killing these bastards is something that I can get behind. It looks like they have plenty of loot and they have done more than enough to make this a personal matter.”
“The further north that we go the colder it will get. At this time of year we will avoid the worst of the weather but people will still light fires at night to warm themselves. The chimney smoke should be visible from short distances,” Fortas said.
“So we keep our eyes open for smoke then let Rantier do whatever it is he plans? You really think it’ll be that easy?” Sytheis asked. “Still doesn’t help us free the others.”
Rantier shrugged. “It’s a start. Better than nothing. Just leave it with me.”
“Here,” Fortas said as he handed over a small object to Rantier that he had pulled from under his belt. It was a flint shard that had been sharpened into a crude dagger. “Found it a few days back. Worked it a bit. Should kill a man if used right. It will have more use in your hands than mine.”
It was several days until they saw any signs of smoke. Up to that point things were only becoming more difficult and any hope of escape had begun to disappear. Nobody else from their little group had been singled out but the poor conditions were enough to wear down the strongest men. Three weeks had passed now without a good meal or a restive sleep while every day had been consumed by endless hours of walking.
A deep chill had hung in the air and a full moon cast the landscape in silver. It had been Chipper who had first noticed the thin trail of smoke that had been just visible above the treetops. He tugged at Bibbi’s sleeve and pointed as subtly as he could.
Their path curved away from it as they had expected. When the sun rose and they were eventually allowed to rest they had moved several miles past where the smoke had emanated from. They decided that it was too far to attempt to flee there.
More days passed until finally they saw signs of a settlement ahead of them as dawn was approaching. The slavers kept them well clear of the area but by noon Sytheis guessed that they were not too far away. Who knew when their next chance would be anyway?
They sat together for one final meal. Rantier outlined his plans then they waited. Sytheis toyed idly with a raven’s feather he had found the previous day. It looked like one of his quills and helped him to remember the peace that came with sitting down to write. This was the longest that he had even gone without being able to lose himself in the flow of words.
When Kaykus made his usual way around the camp, Rantier placed the flint dagger into his mouth then stood.
“Oi bastard! I’m sick to death of you strutting around here like a bloody rooster. Overcompensating for your tiny prick!” he shouted as the man passed. The slur to his words was barely noticeable.
Kaykus rounded on him with a cocky grin. “Sick to death are you? Poor choice of words. I’ll show you miserable shithead who is the one overcompensating.”
Another slaver grabbed Rantier’s arms as Kaykus patted him down. Content that he was unarmed, Kaykus unfastened Rantier’s bonds, kneed him in the gut then dragged him across the floor away from the other slaves.
Kaykus reached down to Rantier’s belt and Rantier took the dagger from his mouth and slammed it into the man’s jugular. Kaykus gasped and spluttered, clutching desperately at his throat but it was too late. Blood pooled around them.
“Sytheis!” Rantier yelled. He hurled the key at the wordsmith then grabbed Kaykus’ sword as slavers came rushing at him with weapons drawn. He was no warrior but nobody survived long in Rantier’s line of work if they couldn’t fight. Blades clashed and Rantier cackled as blood began to spill.
Sytheis caught the key and released himself from the chains. more slavers were running towards him too. The closest slaver made to hack him down but Bibbi tackled him to the floor where Sytheis stabbed his feather into the man’s eye. He screamed and writhed in pain. Sytheis knew that he should have felt bad, felt that rush of sickness that had always accompanied any violence he had seen but all he could feel was a sense of justice.
He worked fast to free Bibbi, who took up the fallen man’s axe, then Fortas and Chipper. They ran into the forest back the way they had come from. They were weak but hope fuelled their steps.
“Rantier! Come on!” he screamed back to the other man who still stood fighting off the slavers. The thug disengaged and ran. The slavers followed but their armour weighed them down.
Sytheis didn’t think. He was a wild animal fleeing for his life. His feet pounded across stones that scattered and skidded with every step. The shouts of their pursuers sounded too close behind them. Trees flashed past in a blur. He was weak. His legs moved automatically.
He couldn’t breath. The last reserves of his strength was about to run dry. Then the trees ahead ended and a squat wooden hut bathed in light appeared before his eyes like a message from the gods. Sytheis felt a fresh wave of energy fill him.
There were people. It was a small village of a few houses and a church. Women were hanging out clothes or knitting in the sun while men moved around pens of animals and fished in the river that ran alongside the huts. Sytheis ran to the middle of the settlement the collapsed gagging for air. Fortas fell to his knees at his side while Bibbi stopped beside them, Chipped clinging to his back and his axe held ready to cut through any that threatened the boy.
A second later Rantier bust from the forest with a dozen angry men chasing him. Sytheis shot to his feet. Having seen the village the slavers slowed to a stop just beyond the trees allowing Rantier to widen the distance between them. There was a hustle of activity as the villagers all ran inside their huts and slammed the doors behind them. A few of the men came back out holding axes, spears or bows. They shot fearful glances at the freed captives and the slavers in equal measure.
Sytheis made a gesture of peace and stepped up to an older man in undamaged clothes who he took to be the village’s leader.
“We seek sanctuary,” he said in a pleading voice. That line always went down well in books. “Those men are slavers. We escaped but are hungry and weak. Will you kind and noble men stand in our defence?”
The man didn’t make a move one way or the other. He stood rigidly still, his eyes locked intently on the slavers. The men stared back then turned and disappeared back into the forest.
“We’re free,” Sytheis laughed. Joy bubbled up in him, making him feel drunk.
“Far from it,” Rantier snorted. “Think. There are thirty armed warriors out there without any morals. We are property, potential profits, that have ran from them. What stands between them getting us back is ourselves and a small village of fishermen and farmers. Limited weapons, no combat experience and no fortifications. My guess would be that they’ll come back in force and grab themselves a net full of fresh slaves for their troubles.”
The villagers had gathered around them now, a mixture of horror and anger on their faces. Many had turned their makeshift weapons upon them.
“We want no trouble,” the elder declared. “We’re but peace lovin’ folk untouched by worries. I’m afraid that the only safe option for us is to hand you young men over. I am sorry.”
Rantier laughed in his face. “I told you. They’re coming for us all now. Like it or not, you peace loving folk are witnesses to a major crime network. Why would they leave potential problems behind when they could easily remove witnesses and increase their profits in one fell swoop? No. You are up shit creek arm in arm with us.”
“Gods! What have you done to us?”
Sytheis tried to take control of the situation since Rantier was clearly not in a sympathetic mood. He took the elder by the shoulder and looked into his eyes. Summoning up all that he had learned about oration he tried to talk the villagers around.
“We too are peace loving people,” he began, completely ignoring the fact that Rantier and Bibbi were not too far removed from the slavers on the morality scale. “We also had no choice in losing our freedom and suffering grave injustices. Not far away there are dozens of men and women who have lost everything to evil men and stand to lose more yet. They too were innocent. Bad things happen whether you want it, deserve it or not. Think of this as your chance to stand against injustice, to defeat evil and make the whole world a more peaceful place.”
“Enough of this,” Rantier interrupted. “We don’t have time to string together pretty words. They’ll be back any minute. Get to the church. Bring any weapons you can find. We’ll make our stand there.”
Fortas stopped him. “No. Not the church. That building there,” he said, pointing at a long wooden building at the village’s centre. He turned to the elder. “What is it exactly?”
“Our school and village hall?” stammered the elder. “Surely the church-”
“Trust me. Get to the back of the hall then leave the rest to me. You,” he addressed a stocky man with scarred hands. “Fetch me your tools. Axes, hammers, whatever you can grab.”
The villagers began to scatter. Fortas ran straight for the hall with Sytheis, Bibbi and Chipper right behind him. Rantier had joined the search for weapons. Once they were inside the mason studied the walls and roof with a focus that Sytheis had not seen in the man before. Several villagers began to join them.
“Start barricading the windows. Leave just enough of a gap for men to shoot arrows out. Keep away from the porch.”
There was a flurry of activity now. Men, women and children came and went from the hall carrying supplies, materials and makeshift weapons. Once Fortas had some tools to work with he busied himself at the front of the building in the entrance porch.
The villagers were far more industrious than Sytheis so he excused himself from the work and sat at the back of the wide room. He really wanted some proper food but doubted that now was the right time to ask for a hot meal. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and waited.
He was going to die. That wasn’t a fatalistic thought. It had occurred to him that he would rather fight to the death than to ever be bound in chains again. To be human was to be the slave to another’s will but to be chained and stripped of independence and free thought was something viscerally unnatural. That and the work was bloody hard without any chance of a pension. The grave was always a better option that a lifetime of fruitless labour.
“Men in the woods!” came a panicked scream. “Gods! They are coming to kill us all!”
“You wish,” Sytheis muttered miserably as he stood. “Hope to the gods that they do kill you.”
He took up a short spear that was used for catching fish and moved to one of the windows. Through the narrow gap he could see twenty men marching through the village with blades drawn. That meant that a few of the guards had stayed behind to manage the captives. There were thirty seven fighting men in the hall. Sytheis still didn’t like the odds even with the superior numbers on his side.
Skerge and Kaykus marched at the head of the slavers. At a hand signal from Skerge the men charged. A handful of arrows shot from the village hall to meet them. Only one slaver fell. A few of the slavers had bows of their own and returned a volley at the narrow slots. Seeing potential danger Sytheis stepped away from his window.
Men reached the hall and started to hack at the door while others ran to the windows to thrust blades at the archers within. Once they managed to get inside the slaughter would be swift. Sytheis shrugged. On second thoughts, if he were to die he may as well do it on a full stomach.
He wandered over to a table that was piled with food. The villages had come prepared for a siege. Optimistic but unlikely. Screams filled the air. They washed over Sytheis without effect in his numbed state. He made a sandwich then sat down with the spear tucked under one arm facing the door.
Wood cracked and splintered. The doors crashed open with the weight of heavy men pushing against it. Arrows fired in both direction then slavers and villagers met in a brutal melee. Brutal for the villagers anyway.
Then there was a new scream. It did not belong to any human though but to wood that was under incredible stress. Sytheis watched with interest as Fortas hammered at support beams away at the side where he had weakened the entrance’s walls earlier. There was a distressed groan and a series of loud cracks then a sheer thunderpeal of noise as the entranceway came crashing down atop the slavers’ heads. Those who were already into the main hall turned at the devastation. Rantier, Bibbi and the villagers pressed forward to utilise upon the distraction.
One of the bowmen staggered back from a nearby window, his face cloven in two by an axehead. The wooden boarding was knocked away and a slaver was forcing himself through the gap. Sytheis stuffed the last of his sandwich into his mouth then hurled the spear at the man. It struck him in the chest and sent him tumbling back out again.
More shrieks sounded, this time at the back of the hall. Sytheis turned to see more slavers gaining entry into the building. These ones were not fighting though. They were grabbing the women and children then dragged them back out through the windows. He ran to help a woman close to him then faltered when he heard Chipper scream. Kaykus had the boy and was already halfway out of the hall.
Sytheis ran to Chipper but was broadsided by a slaver with a mace. He hit the ground hard and rolled just in time to avoid having his ribs broken by a swing of the weapon. He was glad that he had eaten now that he stared down his likely demise.
Groping around himself desperately, his fingers closed around something weighty which he swung at the man’s face. There was a wet slap. The object had been a large fish. Anger burned in the slaver’s eyes. He advanced on Sytheis who threw the fish at the man’s feet and ran. The slaver stepped onto the fish and fell. Seizing his chance, Sytheis rushed back kicked at the man’s head until he stopped struggling.
Chipper was gone. Sytheis ran to the window to see Kaykus disappear into the forest once more. All of the slavers were pulling back. The remaining foes inside of the hall were scrambling away over the debris of the porch.
“They’re running,” laughed the elder. Blood drenched his face from a cut that ran across the length of his forehead. He seemed completely taken aback that anyone was still alive. “We won!”
Sytheis stalked across the room to where Rantier stood triumphantly beside the ruined wall. Fortas and Bibbi stood nearby.
“They took Chipper. Some of the village children and women too.”
“Damnit,” Rantier cursed. He frowned then turned away. “At least we made it. Those bastards won’t try that again. We’re free. That’s what counts.”
Bibbi slammed a fist into his face. Rantier staggered back.
“We get the boy. He trusts us. I won’t let him down.”
“Are you crazy?” Rantier countered. “Just because we beat them back here does not mean we can suddenly go on the offensive. We didn’t kill enough of them to make a difference.”
As the other men argued, Fortas had walked over to the rubble to examine his handiwork. He didn’t like what he saw. Bending down he called over to the others.
“Hey, this one is still breathing,” he said in a weak voice.
The slaver at his feet was half buried in wood. One of his arms was pinned while the other groped uselessly for something to pull himself free with. His breath came in wheezing puffs and his eyes stared up at Fortas with unadulterated hate. Rantier sauntered up to the slaver and trod down hard on his questing hand. The man winced.
“I’m not too happy with you guys,” Rantier began in a too pleasant voice. “Funnily enough, I don’t much like being chained up like a dog, beaten and starved then sold. You see, where I’m from, I’m the nastiest thing around. You’re here trapped and I’m here angry. How do you think this is going to end?”
“Quit yammering and kill me,” growled the man.
Rantier laughed. “Kill you? No no no. The way this works is that you tell me what I want to know and I won’t break each of your finger, hammer out your teeth or gouge out your eyes. Shall we begin? Where are the slaves being taken?”
The slaver spat. “Go sod yourself.”
Rantier shook his head. “Wrong answer.” He bent and pulled back the man’s little finger. Then, with a savage thrust, he snapped it. The man screamed in agony. “Let’s try again. Where were you taking them?”
“T-to a small har-harbour. A day’s march north-west. There are boats there waiting to take them where they are needed. We get paid there then take another boat south to repeat the journey.” gushed the man. He was suddenly the picture of cooperation.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Rantier cooed. Then he swung down with his axe, severing the slaver’s head executioner style.
A council was hastily arranged within the church. Every villager and Sytheis’ group were present. It was only a small church but even with everyone inside there was still plenty of space. It had been designed to hold every man woman and child in the local area. Between the dead from the battle and those that had been taken, too many of the pews were empty.
“We know the habour that the man spoke of. It is not far by boat. Village legend tells that it is haunted, abandoned by men into the hands of evil spirits. Nobody ventures there,” explained the village elder.
“The evil spirit part is right, though these spirits are still bound by the flesh of men,” Sytheis said. “Those stories were to scare away honest folk so that the slavers could use the place undisturbed.”
Bibbi’s face was a mask of staunch anger. “They can’t get away with what they’ve done. They leave and they’ll do it again. That is bad.” He stroked a mace that he had taken from a slaver’s corpse longingly. “They won’t be expecting us. We have the element of surprise. That’s what you always said back in Moorhenda, Rantier.”
“Taking folk by surprise in dark alleys is not the same situation, Bibbi. You know why they won’t be expecting us? Because it is bloody suicide. Only an utter idiot would even try,” Rantier argued.
“But they’ve got Chipper…” Bibbi said sadly. His watery eyes stared at Rantier like a lost puppy.
“Damn it,” Rantier muttered in defeat. “Fine. If you get me killed because of your bloody conscience though I will haunt your every waking hour.”
Poorly drawn maps of the area were brought out and placed on the floor beside the altar. The elder pointed out the village and the river that ran past it until it emerged into the sea only a short distance from the small harbour that the slaver had described. He then traced a small forest path that was the most likely route that the slavers would have taken.
Sytheis studied the map but nothing jumped out at him as useful in defeating a well trained force. If anything, the boats would contain more men to fight while separating the captives. It all seemed like an ultimately fruitless venture.
Fortas was making clicking sounds with his tongue. Sytheis had noticed that he did that a lot while thinking.
“How much alcohol is in the village?” the mason asked after a while.
“Alcohol?” frowned the elder. “Few barrels of spirits, some crates of wine and a couple of casks of cider. This isn’t a problem that we can drink away though.”
“On the contrary,” Fortas said. “If we load up the alcohol onto your fishing boats and sail down river to the harbour, we can get there before the captives, set our boats alight and crash them into the slaver vessels. The slavers will be stranded there then.”
“Stranded but not defenceless,” Sytheis pointed out.
“We counted twelve dead after the battle,” the elder said slowly. “You say there are about thirty of them? That means around twenty left. We only have sixteen men men of an age to fight left. There is nothing that we can do.”
An idea came to Sytheis. He hesitated over whether to mention anything then cursed himself as he felt the words already spilling out.
“I still have the key to the chains. If one of us could sneak up close they could release some slaves. The other men then strike during the confusion.”
Rantier weighed up his words then nodded. “Could work. Especially if the slaves lend a hand once they have a taste of freedom. They might be cowed while bound but I dare say a few would want some payback.
The elder still didn’t look happy. “The risks are too high. Once we began there would be no going back. The plan would have to work or we would all die.”
“Do or die. Death or glory. I like it,” Rantier grinned. “I’m no pansy but it sounds pretty poetic. Whadda ya say, wordsmith?”
Sytheis nodded glumly. “Certainly sounds poetic. Though I think poetry was created to make thing sound better than they actually are. Death is still death at the end of the day. Poets stay away from battlefields and that’s why they can talk about honour and glory.”
Rantier clapped him on the shoulder. “Good. Well volunteered then.”
“Well, I’ll be with the boats. I like fire. And alcohol. And explosions too. Bibbi is about as stealthy as a pissed up elephant and the villagers don’t know how the slavers operated or how the captives are positioned and guarded. That leaves you or the mason. Masons aren’t renowned for their ghostly presence either.”
Now Sytheis very much regretted speaking. His bloody mouth would get him killed one day. Possibly that very day in fact.
“That’s the spirit!” Rantier smiled. A slightly insane glint burned in his eyes. “Time to burn these bastards from existence. Let’s get those fishing boats loaded up. Crack open a barrel for the journey. Come on. Move it!”
Villagers hopped to his command. He had the self assurance of somebody who expected everyone to obey him without question. It worked. Nobody stopped to ask what gave the thug the authority to order everybody around.
Sytheis watched the villagers busy themselves for a while then turned to the eldar. “I guess we are the ground forces then. Don’t suppose that you know how to organise battlelines and create clever strategies?”
The man stared at him miserably. Sytheis knew how he felt. He leaned over the map and studied the landscape around the harbour.
“What do you know about Lavre Pel Gondra?”
The elder furrowed his brows. “The Venndi general? Nothing except he was a war hero and is long dead. Why?”
“I read his journals once. He was a minor noble during the time of the Venndi war of succession. In that time he went from a nobody to the general of the winning side’s forces. It all began when Prince Stannis was marching his forces through a forested valley. Lavre was the lord of that area and had sided with Prince Delkin. He had a few peasant farmers and nothing else. Outnumbered and outclassed he faced down Stannis’ army and won. Gather up all of the fishing lines and nets. We’re going hunting.”
Within the hour they had set off from the village. Sytheis, Fortas, the elder and the majority of the village men padded through the trees while Rantier and Bibbi, along with a few of the fishermen, led a small fleet of boats along the river. Speed was of the essence.
The village hunters were quickly able to find the tracks left by the slave convoy. The ragtag army followed the trail as quickly as they could through the trees. A bitter coldness hung in the air, turning their breath to mist. This far north it was probably about time for the snows to fall.
It was several hours until they neared the harbour. The hunters had gone on ahead and returned to report that the slavers were awaiting the arrival of the ships. The captives were sat in long lines within the clearing, guarded by the majority of the remaining slavers.
“Right, we won’t have much time before their ships arrive and Rantier and the others strike. Everything needs to be set up before then,” Sytheis announced with as commanding an air as he could muster. He sighed then swallowed hard. “I’m going to go and try to free the captives then draw the slavers this way. If I get killed because you lot aren’t ready then I won’t be happy.”
“We’ll have it set up in no time,” Fortas told him confidently. The man actually seemed happy now that he was given something constructive to do. “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”
“It’s my front I’m worried about,” Sytheis muttered as he turned away and veered off the path.
The trees were not particularly close here so offered him no real cover of darkness. After a short walk he was able to see past the trees to a cleared area that surrounded a small bay. Calm waters filled the expanse beyond. There was a single building set a short way back from the water.
The captives were sat behind this building in a tight cluster ringed by fifteen slavers. Skerge was nowhere to be seen. Sytheis guessed that he and the last few slavers must be inside of the building. There seemed no easy way past the open space and guards to get to the slaves. He would have to wait for the inevitable distraction that Rantier’s entrance would cause.
As it turned out, he did not have to wait long. Three cargo ships appeared on the horizon and rapidly grew closer to the shore until they came to a stop a short distance from the land. The slavers began marshalling their captives onto their feet and into orderly lines beside the water. Rantier would have to arrive soon or it would be too late.
Just as the ships were readying small rowboats to collect the human cargo, five fishing boats rounded the bays side and sailed straight for the larger vessels. When they showed no signs of slowing, a sense of confusion spread through the onlookers.
Over the water on the lead boat, Rantier stood at the tiller laughing maniacally. Kindling littered the boats base while barrels and bottles of various alcohol sloshed around. It had seemed a waste to destroy it all so Rantier had made sure to have a good drink from each. He was red faced and ready for a fight. The thought that he was probably very flammable himself now skittered through his mind before becoming lost in a torrent of happier, illogical musings.
He slurred a foul-mouthed insult at the men watching him from the ships then made a rude gesture. Bows were being aimed at him. Figuring that now was a good time to get going, he struck a match and threw it to the deck. Flames whooshed and spread in an instant. He saluted the ships then dived over the side. Bibbi and the fishermen lit their boats then joined Rantier in the water.
Sytheis watched as the flaming boats crashed into the ships. Men screamed. All eyes on the shore were drawn to the chaos with a mixture of amazement, anger and dread. Now was his chance. He ran across the rocky ground and hid at the back of the building while he regained his breath.
Peering around the corner Sytheis could see that everyone’s backs were still turned. How long before they began to move though? The ships beyond them were blazing merrily now. Once the stunned silence passed, they would have to come back toward Sytheis.
He padded over to the slaves as quickly and quietly as he could. Ducking down, he crawled into the crowd, disappearing into the mass of dirty bodies. Anyone who looked down as he passed had the startled look of someone who wasn’t sure if what they were seeing was real or not. Sytheis gestured for them to stay quiet. He unlocked their bonds but made sure that they understood not to run yet.
The guards were beginning to move now. Sytheis passed the key to a man and hissed at him to pass it on. This was the moment where things could go horribly wrong. He carefully slid his appropriated blade from its sheath and moved back through the slaves to where he had come from. Too few locks had been undone in the time that he had had but it would have to do.
A slaver stood only a few feet away yelling at the bedraggled men and women to stop gawking and get ready to march. Sytheis wasn’t one for praying but he hoped that someone out there was looking out for him.
Like a viper he struck, lunging up out of the captives’ midst to ram the blade into the slaver’s throat. Without waiting he took off at a sprint toward the forest. Outraged shouts erupted behind him. He risked glancing back to see five of the slavers chasing after him. They were gaining fast. Sytheis was no athlete.
He made it into the trees. The men were right behind him now. His eyes scanned the forest frantically, searching. There! A flag of roughly cut sail. His feet continued to pound across the ground. The men were almost in tackle distance. He could hear their heavy breathing almost on the back of his neck.
Now! Sytheis threw himself at the floor in a roll as he passed the tree where the flag was. In an instant he was back on his feet. The lead slaver passed the tree and stopped so abruptly that he flipped to the ground in a heap with blood spilling from his neck. The next two slavers had no time to react to their companion’s death before they met with the same fate. The taught line of fishing wire strung between two trees glistened with blood.
The last two slavers skidded to a halt just in time. One sliced the wire in half then they were back on Sytheis’ tale, more cautiously now. Sytheis continued to run, covering the leaf-strewn ground in giant, bounding steps.
Another scream. One of the men had fallen, the ground giving way where a hole had been dug and a net thrown over it and covered with foliage. Sytheis knew sharpened stakes were stuck up down there. One slaver to go.
Sytheis stopped and turned. The remaining slaver was stood still beside where his friend had disappeared. He looked around with wild eyes and made no move to get any closer to Sytheis. Taking a nervous step back, the man span around to flee.
His flight was cut abruptly short by the men who emerges from hiding spot around him with drawn bows in their hands. He had just enough time to curse before arrows filled the air then swiftly proceeded to fill his body.
The elder stepped out to join Sytheis, shaking his head sadly as he surveyed the dead bodies.
“So much death,” he stated grimly. “I do not like my people being used as weapons like this.”
“You want those that were taken from you back as much as any of us. Try not to think about the means, only the end,” Sytheis said. “There is still a lot to do. We need to move fast before they can get themselves together.”
They set off at a jog back toward the harbour. When they neared the place, the sound of a skirmish greeted them. At the far end of the bay in a cluster of rocks, Rantier, Bibbi and the fishermen fought off the slavers while captives ran in every direction, some of them throwing themselves at their captors in a rage of bloodlust. It was a scene of utter chaos and confusion.
Sytheis led the charge at the combat-locked slavers. They were unbalanced and now would be the best time to hit hard and tip the scales in the villagers and slaves favours. His survival was the most important thing in the world. Logic told him that engaging in a fight straight away would be safer than waiting. If he could get the villagers fired up then he could safely slip away in the heat of the battle to safety.
He jumped and hit the first slaver with his full body. They both hit the ground and Sytheis stabbed him in the back repeatedly. His plan was to join Rantier in the cover of the rocks. Someone kicked him in the ribs and he had to scurry away quickly to avoid the blade that followed the foot. He jumped up in time to parry a slashing axe that tore his sword from his grip.
Defenceless, he kicked at the slaver’s knee. The man cursed and jerked back, allowing Sytheis a moment to run. He shoved past slaver and slave alike in his dash to get to safety. Rantier was closeby now.
“Wordsmith!” Rantier roared above the din of the battle. He was fighting off a stout slaver with one hand while pointing off in the distance with the other. “Help the boy!”
Sytheis looked to where the street thug was pointing. At the back of the fighting near to the building, a man was pulling up a young boy onto the back of a horse. Even from this distance he could see that the boy was Chipper. If he was not mistaken he was fairly sure that the man was Kaykus.
Bibbi came bounding from the rocks, cutting down any that stood in his way. Sytheis had never seen him move so determinedly. He looked past Bibbi to see the slaver leader, Skurge, striding toward Rantier.
“Go! Help Bibbi!” Rantier told him. “This prick is mine!”
The two men’s blades clashed but Sytheis saw no more of the fight before Bibbi grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him at a sprint toward the building. Bibbi was like a demon. His mace split armour and bone every time he swung it and he never slowed. He rammed anyone who he did not bludgeon.
Chipper was on the horse now. Kaykus swung himself into the saddle and they bolted away from the battle at a canter. Another slaver was attempting to mount a second horse until Bibbi shattered his ankle with a swing of the mace. The man screamed as he was pulled down and pummeled into a bloody mess. Bibbi eyed the animal frustratedly once he had finished.
“I’ve never ridden a horse. I don’t know how,” he admitted grudgingly. “Can you?”
Sytheis didn’t wait to answer before he hopped up onto the horse’s back. From the height of the saddle he had a moment to survey the battle. The slavers were losing badly now. Victory should be assured.
“Go back and help Rantier. I’ll bring back Chipper.”
Bibbi nodded. “Thank you. Speed of the gods be upon you. Don’t let him down.”
The horse spring after Kaykus with all of the speed that Sytheis could manage. He had been raised in a farming community and had been around work horses all of his early life. Once he enrolled in the colleges he had taken up riding to prove his pedigree. To be a good horseman was an important part of the very idea of Venndi nobility.
Kaykus had a good headstart but his horse was weighed down by the man’s armour and by Chipper. Providing that Sytheis didn’t lose his trail it was only a matter of time until he caught them up. What then? Sytheis had no weapons.
Scenery whipped past him in blurry streaks. The ground was slanting upwards, growing steeper by the second. The ground was becoming a barren layer of stone and dust that kicked up brown clouds every time that the horse’s hooves connected with the floor.
A haze of dust ahead revealed that he was closing in on Kaykus. They had taken a path that led into the mountains and now thinned to only a narrow space with solid rock at one side and a sheer drop on the other. Sytheis looked down and could see the tops of trees below. He instantly regretted the decision.
Horrible vertigo threatened to overcome him. He focussed in on the path and tried to ignore everything in his peripheral vision. The thunder of hooves filled his world. Inch by inch he was gaining. Now he could see the other horse up ahead of him.
He pushed the horse harder. While he had never been the best rider he had been good enough to participate in the college races. If he had the opportunity to practice more with a horse of his own then he would account himself fairly skilled.
“You’re a persistent one!” Kaykus shouted over his shoulder. “Give up now with your freedom. A shallow grave is all that waits if you keep following me.”
Sytheis was right behind the slaver’s horse now. The air he breathed in was thick with dust. Chipper was tied up and gagged but he struggled frantically from his place draped across the horse behind Kaykus.
Kaykus had drawn his sword. He was unsteadily leaning back to try and swipe at Sytheis’ horse with the blade. Sytheis pulled on the reins and his horse veered away sharply. He cursed as they got too close to the edge for comfort. Hastily he swung the horse back until both animals were nearly touching each other. There was no room at all left to manovre.
Kaykus swung again and Sytheis only just managed to grab his arm. He directed his mount using his knees to free up both hands while the slaver kept his left hand firmly on the reins. They fought over the weapon until a sharp turn unbalanced Sytheis and he slid from the top of his horse. Desperately he threw himself at Kaykus and managed to clamber onto his animal.
The horse swayed across the narrow path dangerously as the two men lashed out at one another. Kaykus was able to gain the upperhand and had Sytheis pinned with the weapon ready to plunge into his chest when the horse neighed fearfully
The next thing that they knew, the horse had missed a turn and had dived straight off of the edge. It’s legs his the slope and buckled, throwing Sytheis, Kaykus and Chipper from its back. They hit the rocks and tumbled down the mountain’s side, bouncing and rolling at speed without anything to slow their fall.
With jolting suddenness, Sytheis came to a stop. There was no breath in his lungs and every part of his body screamed out in pain. He couldn’t move. He was fairly certain that several of his bones had been broken. It was an effort just to suck in wheezing breaths. He could taste blood. The world around him was a rapidly darkening mess of indistinct blurs.
There was a sound beside him. It took several moments for it to register that the sounds were words.
“Mister? S-Sytheis? Are you okay?”
Good. At least Chipper was still alive. He didn’t answer the boy though. He couldn’t have if he had tried. His vision was failing and his thoughts were becoming indistinct. With Chipper clinging to his hand, Sytheis slipped into darkness.