They marched like human cattle through the arid throat of the mountains. Men and women, old and young, were all subsumed into a single, shuffling, iron-bound mass. They walked with their heads down and bodies slack, broken through and through. Men wrapped in leather and steel rode snorting horses and shepherded the herd like overzealous hounds. Lashes snapped, the loud cracks of cruelty that made words unnecessary. Dust rose from bare feet and shod hooves, and the hot wind reeked like the breath of Hell welcoming new pilgrims. Just more meat for the grinder of Molthune's aspirations.
"There're more of them than when we saw them three days ago," Trilaina whispered. The scout lay on a flat rock, a rumpled, no-color cloth thrown over her and weighted down with sandy soil.
"More slaves or more guards?" Chaplain asked.
"Both," the half-elf replied, her lips barely parted enough to speak. Chain shifted below, down in the shade where the cleric was keeping out of sight.
"Torag will provide," Chaplain said.
Trilaina resisted the urge to turn and glare at the dwarf. "That's what you always say."
The cleric shrugged her shoulders again. "The day that I'm wrong, child, you may feel free to say 'I told you so.'"
The herd came close enough that shouts and cries pulled apart and became words. Trilaina saw faces over the groove of her crossbow, every one of them minted with the hopelessness a forced march brought. An older woman, her strength finally failing, fell over. She didn't move when the lash opened her cheek, but blood ran fast enough to testify that she wasn't dead. Not yet, anyway.
"Patience," Chaplain said, her words more of a prayer than a caution. "Be calm, and wait for the signal."
Trilaina's mouth opened to reply when a howl rolled the across the valley. As one, the guards looked, goggling like children scaring each other with campfire stories. A black she-wolf, silver in her muzzle and fire in her eyes, appeared on an outcrop. She growled down at the mass of men like a judgmental goddess, unafraid of their slings and arrows. One of the caravan guards cranked his own crossbow, raised it up, and shouted something to the others. The others laughed in reply. Trilaina couldn't hear what he said, but they were his last words.
A loud twang snapped like a split harp string, and a bolt skewered the would-be archer's head like a practice pumpkin. He sat his saddle another moment, blood dribbling to the thirsty earth, before falling like a sack full of meat. Trilaina took a breath, found her mark, and squeezed. It wasn't until her bolt tore into another guard's guts, right through the weak spot where his armor laced together up the side, that the others realized they were under attack.
Swords cleared scabbards and arrows were loosed into the rocks. Bottles smashed against the hills, and gouts of liquid fire spumed up like dragon's breath. In response, more shafts fell from both sides of the canyon, every one of them striking home. The imprisoned horde, scenting that its captors were wounded, woke up. They attacked in ones and twos at first, but then the floodgates opened full force. They pulled men off horses and snatched weapons from hands and belts. The guards that went down screamed and didn’t rise again. The horses, panicked by the potent combination of fear and rage in the air, bolted. The remaining slavers, facing the ragged wraiths bent on vengeance, followed the riderless mounts.
"They're getting away," Trilaina grunted. She snapped the reload lever and slipped another shaft along the groove.
"Not for long," Chaplain observed.
No sooner had the words been spoken than a thick rope leaped out of the soil and barred the way. It caught the riders and sent them flailing and crashing to the dirt. Trilaina sighted and squeezed carefully, catching the first to rise from the heap between the shoulder blades. The others chose to stay down, bellies up like dogs.
"You know, it's scary how you do that." Trilaina cocked the crossbow again. Chaplain hefted her hammer and smiled. She always looked matronly when she did that. Stern, but matronly.
"When you've been around as long as I have," the dwarf started.
"Then I'm sure I'll recognize the signs," Trilaina finished. She tried to brush some of the grit out of her eyes—returning her hair to its previously golden hue was going to take nothing short of a wish. She brought her weapon back into firing position. "Let's just get this over with, huh?"
"As you wish."
They clambered down the rocky slope, each watching carefully while the other descended the rough patches. It wasn't pleasant, and if anyone with ill intent had been paying them the slightest mind, they could have turned both women into pincushions. But no one was watching, and soon enough their boots were back on level ground. They took a single moment to sweep the area, then headed for the far end of the battlefield, where an interesting little group had gathered.
Four former guards sat on the ground, rusty irons around their wrists. It was amazing the difference that only a few moments made in their bearing. The wolf—Denna—stood to the left with her head down and her hackles up. Gunner sat on the wolf's back, holding the infernal collection of gears, levers, and bow strings that made up his bizarre heavy crossbow. If not for his eyes—the same verdant green as his hair and mustache—the gnome could have been a statue in woodsman's clothes. On the right, glaring over his crooked nose, stood Garm. The half-orc breathed easy, stripped to the waist, muscles like steel cables flexing under his charcoal skin. Between the two of them, facing the little crowd of captives, stood the Lieutenant.
Even in a motley crew like this, Lieutenant Sturgeon Hook was impossible to miss. An old buzzard of a man, Hook seemed to have been named for the prominent nose that jutted out like a beak over his pointed chin and wispy beard. What hair he had left was white, and his skin was the ratty testament of a violent vagabond who'd weathered a storm of swords in his day. Of all the team members, he was the only one who wore a proper uniform—the faded and dust-stained blue coat of an officer in the Andoren army—yet the real proof of his rank lay in his bearing. He glanced up at the last two members of his unit, then went back to studying the prisoners.
"Looks like you caught something, Garm," Trilaina called.
The half-orc nodded, his expression thoughtful. "Trying to decide which one to keep," he finally said in his sonorous baritone.
"I'd throw em back," Gunner grunted, gesturing with the business end of his miniature ballista. "Watch ’em try to swim."
The Lieutenant ignored the banter and leaned towards the man in the center. The captive wore no armor, but was swathed in desert robes that had probably been fine some time ago. His mustache was ridiculous, his boots were ostentatious, and his fat fingers each bore a multifaceted gemstone set in heavy gold. The Lieutenant smiled, and the man on the ground shuddered.
"Harlon Robbes," the Lieutenant croaked, the smile transforming into a sneer. "A more aptly named rut-smear there never was. Where were you planning on going with so many unwilling passengers, Robbes?"
"The South Menador Mine," the slaver said. Frightened as he was, his voice was still as smooth as oiled clockwork. "They have an iron quota to fill, and they aren't shy about how they wrest the ore from the mountain."
"And since you're a patriot, you venture forth to recruit the best and the brightest to clap in irons," the Lieutenant said. The slaver shrugged, a single, spasmodic jerk. "When are they expecting you?"
"Shortly," Robbes replied, licking sweat from his cracked lips. "I was told to expect an escort by noon tomorrow."
"Ah," the Lieutenant said, as if that single fact explained everything. One of the men moved, and Denna lifted her lips. The sharp, white fangs made him decide that whatever itch he had could wait a little while longer.
"What do you think, boss?" Trilaina glanced over at the newly freed slaves. The mob looked back, a herd of sheep that had stampeded the wolves, but which still wasn't quite sure what to do.
"I think the best cure for a blight like this is a taste of its own medicine." The Lieutenant stepped back and nodded to Garm. The half-orc grabbed the manacle chain and lifted the nearest guard like a child caught misbehaving, and marched him toward the eager crowd. Chaplain grabbed a second, and Gunner gestured at a third. Before the third man could rise though, Robbes snatched the man's belt, hauled them both to their feet, and ran.
The other captives all tried their own runs for the sun. The first man struggled, wrenching his wrists and trying to throw Garm over his hip. The guard was big and broad-shouldered, but it wasn't enough. Garm smashed an elbow into the side of the slaver’s head with a hollow crunch, and the man went down like a slaughterhouse bull. The second guard pulled, and Chaplain let go. Before the prisoner could enjoy his freedom, Chaplain rung his bell with the side of her hammer, and he sprawled out flat. The third man made it four steps before something wet and sticky exploded against his back like a resinous pustule. He tripped over his own feet as the alchemical bag turned him into another graceless lump on the valley floor. Trilaina snickered, always happy to use one of her favorite toys.
Robbes hadn't relied on his own legs in some time, and it showed. Galvanized by fear, however, and with the chill of the grave on the back of his neck, he ran fast enough. The Lieutenant swore as he snatched a vial from his belt and hurled. The explosion of the bomb sent up a spray of rocks and dirt that sent the man stumbling. Gunner sighted and fired, his hands just one more part of the complex weapon. The bolt screamed, a steel-tipped falcon that slashed along the heavy, meaty expanse of the lead flesh-merchant’s shoulder. He yelped like a stuck pig and ducked, running even faster. A horse whinnied, and by the time the dust had cleared both horse and the rider were dark smudges far down the canyon.
"I told you to miss him," The Lieutenant said.
Gunner shrugged and reloaded. "He'll run faster if he's winged."
Hook blew out a long breath and shook his head. "We don't want him running too fast."
Gunner straightened in the saddle. "Sir."
Lieutenant Hook nodded and looked around at his team. They all nodded back.
"Anyone hurt?" he asked. They all shook their heads. "Good. Fine work, everyone. Consider this a step toward the final goal."
The Lieutenant knelt down, wincing, and snatched a heavy, rusted key off a dead guard's belt. He tossed it to Garm, and Trilaina took a nearly identical key off a second's man's belt. The Lieutenant nodded and rubbed at his bad knee.
"All right, let's get to work. Gunner, round up the horses and butcher them—these people are going to need some proper meat once they're not carrying around half a measure of iron each. Chaplain, soothe them as well as you can. There's quite a bit of day left to burn, and we've got to make these people disappear. The sooner we get that chore done, the sooner we get to go and play king of the mountain. Hop to!"
Coming Next Week: Swift justice to agents of the slave trade in Chapter Two of Neal F. Litherland’s "The Irregulars"!
Neal F. Litherland is the author of several other stories, including the novella "Summer People" and the short story "Heart of the Myrmidon," part of the post-apocalyptic romance anthology End of Days. He holds a Bachelors of Criminal Justice from Indiana University. For more information, visit facebook.com/NealFLitherland.
Illustration by Lindsey Wakefield