Trey had arrived at the storehouse to be greeted by hundreds of people. There were so many that even the bottom floor was nearly filled with slaves. He greeted a few faces he recognised while he and Billy shuffled through the crowd to try and find Zak, Dawn and Liam.
On the second floor they were met by Zak and Liam who had created a little platform from the crates where they could escape the people who filled the room to the brim. Liam looked to be just finishing off healing himself. He still looked rough though. Trey did not want to imagine how he had looked before.
“Took your time,” laughed Zak, clapping them both on the back.
“We’ve been here for fifteen minutes already.”
“Any sign of Dawn?” asked Trey as he scanned the nearby faces. Both Zak and Liam shook their heads. “Haven’t seen her since we left here,” Liam answered.
“While we were waiting we realised a few things. Like how do we get out? These people are all malnourished and weak. They cannot go the way we came, they’d all fall to their deaths,” said Zak.
“True. We could-” his idea was interrupted as someone below screamed “Sarah!” catching Trey’s attention. The teens clambered down to the lower level and forced their way to the door.
Trey’s mother stood there, half supported by a man he did not know but who looked vaguely familiar. On the man’s back sat Dawn. All three looked battered but otherwise fine. Trey ran through the crowd of people and without hesitation embraced his mother. He was supposed to be a man now, he was looked upon as a leader to the people around him but he did not care in the slightest. She was safe, that was his only concern. He only let go when Sarah gasped and he noticed her injured ankle. The man crouched down so Dawn could slide off and greet her friends; a strange look was on his face.
“Billy, it’s good to see you,” said Sarah once her attention strayed from her son.
“You too, Mrs Sted,” replied Billy, his voice seeming troubled.
“Have you seen my mum and dad?” he managed to force out after a moment of hesitation.
Sarah did not know what to say. “Billy… I’m so sorry.”
The boy’s eyes glazed over as Sarah’s words sunk into his head. He was trying to keep a brave face in front of the crowd but it was a losing battle.
“T-they’re… they’re b-both… dead,” Billy said. He crashed onto his knees, his hands cupping his face, pulling at his hair. He began to shake as he repeated “Dead” in a whisper over and over again.
Sarah threw herself down at his side and pulled his head onto her shoulder. The emptiness within him took over and he openly sobbed into Sarah’s hair. Silent tears streamed down Sarah’s face too as she grieved for her lost friends.
“There will be plenty of time to grieve later. We have an escape to plan now and everything else needs to be forgotten until we are all safe. For now we have to content ourselves with paying these monsters back,” announced the man who had entered with Dawn.
“He is right,” said Trey as he held out a hand to Billy. “We can all grieve after we have taken revenge on those who cause us to grieve.”
Billy nodded, wiped the tears from his eyes then took Trey’s hand. Once he was up he held out his hand and Sarah took it graciously. The stranger stepped forwards to grab the crowd’s attention.
“Not that they haven’t done a great job so far but I think that a group of teenagers shouldn’t be responsible for our lives. Unless anyone has any complaints, I will take command until the threat is behind us.”
There were plenty of murmurs in the crowd but no one spoke out openly against the man. From the crowd, Lieutenant Gapon stepped up to the man. They stood face to face, looking ready to trade blows. Gapon grabbed the man’s shoulder roughly. To Trey’s surprise, he did not throw a punch though. Instead he broke into a joyous laugh.
“Damn it, but it is good to see you, Blake. I stand with you, just as I did in the war.”
Trey stepped forward. “Who are you?”
The man seemed to hesitate for a moment but then his loud confidence returned. “I am Blake Hunter, ex-sergeant of the Pastrino City Guards. A former soldier and the longest surviving slave extraordinaire. Any other questions?”
The name sounded familiar but Trey could not think where he knew it from. Too much had happened and much more was to come for Trey to worry over something so small. There were just too many thoughts to process at the moment. Trey shook his head, content with Blake taking control. After all, Trey was no leader; he did not want the responsibility. Blake cleared his throat.
“Right then, time for a plan.”
* * *
The Lanstiro guards were not stupid. They knew that the only way for the slaves to escape was through the front gates so they had assembled in force to await the slaves exit. All of the slaves that had not managed to escape were already safely locked within the castle. Over three quarters of the guards in the city, both human and Forukk, were ready to give the ungrateful scum a leaving party they would never forget.
The guards’ mood was light as they were expecting a massacre. The slaves would come in a disorganised rabble, hardly armed and so starved that they could not run. They would come like sheep to the slaughter. The rumble of stamping feet reached the ears of the guards and to their surprise, a large wooden shield was heading towards them at speed. Dirty feet could just be seen under the barrier.
“Fire!” bellowed the lead guard. It took precious seconds to ready their ranged weapons.
Hundreds of projectiles shot forwards, embedding into the barricade. A few made it through the thick wood but the guards could not see if any damage had been dealt. There was barely time for a second volley before the mobile barricade was upon them.
The barrier suddenly dropped to reveal nine dakdaks, man sized, three legged birds without wings, kept for their rich eggs. The livestock awkwardly galloped towards the guards’ ranks, rode by slaves with makeshift lances and shields. There was a crash instantly followed by screams. The dakdaks did not slow to attempt to make additional kills. The guards hacked at the mounts and the riders. Three animals fell, the others continued forwards.
Several of the guards turned to follow the dakdaks when arrows twanged from behind the fallen barrier to hit them from behind. Hundreds of slaves were charging to the exit, all armed with knives. A few had swords or bows while others just had metal bars or stones. They had formed a square with the men on the outside and the women and children in the core.
“Kill the men! The women and spawnlings will be defenceless then,” barked a grizzled Forukk with horns jutting out of its skull that were twice the size of those on the surrounding beasts.
The Lanstirian warriors charged to engage the ragtag slaves. The two forces met with a clash of weapons, shields and screams. The slaves did not stop to fight but continued to push forwards, struggling to carve a path through their heavily armoured opponents.
* * *
It felt good to have a weapon in his hands again, Gapon thought to himself as he swung a hammer into a Forrukk’s throat. The heavy blacksmith hammer was no match for his mace but it would do. He made a wide sweep that knocked a beast over to be stabbed by the woman behind him. Blake’s orders to him had been simple: protect Sarah and Trey at all costs.
Sarah was well protected already and certainly was not defenceless. As for the boy, Trey, watching him fight left Gapon with no doubt that the boy could hold his own. Another few years and he would surpass both Blake and himself at their peaks.
A blade nicked his wrist. The battle was hopeless at these odds. It didn’t matter how many skulls that he cracked, more just kept coming. Dying in an unwinnable battle still beat living as a slave though. Gapon calmed his mind. He just had to keep swinging. Trying to keep his wards in sight, he let out a battle cry and raised his hammer up high.
* * *
Blake chopped at a Forukk that ventured too close to him as he took another hard earned step forward. Despite all the effort, the slaves were simply too weak to fight against trained warriors. He ducked as a guard flew over his head. Risking a glance at where the man had come from he saw Zak had broken rank and was cutting his own bloody path through the blockade. He was doing a good job of distracting a few enemies but it was not enough.
As Blake dodged a mace he looked over to the left side of the column. Trey fought valiantly, stopping the enemy from overwhelming the other slaves around him. A pang of regret hit Blake as he realised he may never get a chance to get to know his son or even let the boy know that he was his father.
The column came to a halt, unable to push any further forwards. The enemy fully surrounded them. Blake blew on a horn and all the men crouched. The women and children darted out, struck at the guards with their knives then leapt back into the centre. The men were back up and hacking at the surprised enemy without pause. It was still not enough.
Just when the enemies were on the verge of engulfing the slaves, several guards began to scream from in front of the fighting. Blake was about to be cut in two by a twisted looking Forukk when a huge blade ripped through its chest. As the beast fell it revealed a giant of a man, scarred beyond belief. At his side span a young woman with purple hair and two flower chakram.
“Nice timing, Htaed, Lily,” shouted Zak over the din of the battle. After the two strange warriors killed another handful of guards and Forukks each, the remaining enemies fled in terror, leaving the slaves to stagger away from the fortress and towards freedom.
“Sorry we had to leave earlier but those Forukks are tougher than the normal rabble,” chirped Lily happily. “This was too easy though, I was looking forward to another good fight,” she pouted.
“Do not worry,” said Htaed softly. “You will get your fight.” He motioned through the thinning mist at an army of Forukks that marched towards them.
Blake cursed. “We can’t fight them.”
“You either fight and die like warriors or surrender and die like dogs,” said Htaed as he eyed the enemy. “They only outnumber us five to one, its still good odds.”
“The last lot had less than us yet we still would have died if not for you!” shouted Blake.
Htaed answered slowly, as if caught in a memory. “You will one day learn that odds and numbers mean little in battle. Pray to your Sprites and do not falter, then accept whatever fate is destined for you.”
A battle cry broke out behind them and they turned to face a second army flooding through the fortress’ door. It numbered far less than the army on their other side but it was still enough to pincer the slaves from the very start of the battle.
“See you all on the other side,” roared Blake as he tightened his grip on the blade he held and offered up a prayer to every Sprite he could name.