Darius hammered one of the spokes back into the wheel and wiped his brow. While he’d never shirked from any work as a prince, he hadn’t imagined fixing wagons for bandits. He rolled the wheel to the next man who was working on hitching them back to the wagons.
The quake still haunted his dreams and visions of flow of the red lava hissing and dissolving Dharya to charred and molten debris plagued him even during the day.
Tarvus came up to him carrying a bale of hay, barechested and covered in sweat and soot. “Rorash’s horse is as bull-headed as him. You won’t believe what it took to hook him back to a wagon.”
Darius smiled shaking his head as he picked up a metal rod to beat into shape. Most of the animals had run off in terror during the quake and it had taken them four days to track down all of them. All except one ill fated donkey which had run into a still hot pool of semi solid magma and lost its legs. But progress had been extremely slow with food running low and most of their carts, wagons and vardo in disrepair having been bumped around in the quake.
Somehow the quake had brought all of them together. And he found that he didn’t hate the bandits all that much. Except Barak and Rorash. Barak hadn’t returned but Rorash had been as obnoxious as ever.
Tarvus flung the bale alongside other stacks and wiped his forehead with a sash. “Bloody Arbok’s bones, this is far worse than fighting. Running a camp is not easy.”
“I have never fixed these many wagons. But the sooner we move as far away from Dharya the better.” His face fell again at the thought of the lost village.
“For that we have to fix those three vardos. Those took the most beating.”
Darius scoffed looking at the cracked and broken vardos. “I’d rather leave them here. Especially Barak’s, with all the cursed books. Besides who knows if the man will return.”
A loud rumbling distracted them. Darius walked to the periphery of the camp with Tarvus. Others of the camp stopped their chores and approached the sound.
A large plume of dust approached from the north. “Now what? That doesn’t seem like a dust storm.” Darius exclaimed.
Tarvus shook his head. “No, it doesn’t.”
Rorash pushed past them. “As if you sea-rats would know anything about dust storms. That is a large group of riders approaching.”
Darius turned up his nose at the stench coming from the man but the brute had been working hard to rebuild the camp. “He is right.” He could see the faint forms of horses through the ever expanding wall of dust.
“That is at least three furlongs wide,” one of the bandits echoed Darius’ thoughts. “Is that an army?”
Panic coursed through Darius. If these were Halan warriors, they had no chance against these many men. “Men, fetch your swords. We will not go down without a fight to these savages.”
Tarvus pushed him back and rolled his eyes. “He is right. So many riders may mean trouble. Let us fetch our weapons. But do not attack unless they do and form a perimeter around the camp.”
Rorash stared at them but did not countermand Tarvus’ instruction.
The camp went in an uproar and soon there was clanging and chaos as people ran about. Darius and Tarvus ran into their vardo and pulled out their swords.
Tarvus threw him a spare dagger, which he slipped in by his sash. “There are Halans among us. What were you thinking?”
Darius felt a pang of guilt. “My emotions took over. I…I just can’t imagine Halan warriors attacking us.”
Tarvus climbed outside the vardo. “Keep yourself in check. I do not think anyone would send an army to slaughter fifty men.”
Darius followed the Captain outside. Some of the bandits had already lined up outside, nervously holding up their blades.
As the contingent came closer, Darius realized that although the front line was lined with Halan warriors, behind them was a long train of carts and caravans filled with bedraggled villagers. But the sight of the man leading them did not ease his grip on his sword. Astride one of the largest brown geldings he had seen, sat a seven foot barechested giant with a crown on his head.
“By Sucellok’s beard, it’s Mad Dog!” Rorash exclaimed, his face turning ashen. Darius was surprised at Rorash using the phrase considering he belonged to the northern lands. He nudged the bandit. “Who’s that?”
“The fiercest warrior in all Halan land. He’s the general of their troops or whatever they call him here. He kills bulls with one punch and I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”
“That is a large man. A very large man.” Tarvus exclaimed with a low whistle.
“I’ve never seen a man that huge. Are you sure he is a man?” Darius leaned in towards him.
“What do you mean?”
“It could be the result of the corruption which Scipio mentioned.”
Before Tarvus could respond, few of the bandits dropped their weapons, whether in awe or fear he could not tell. “Ash’kamar! Ash’kamar!” A chorus rang out – Mad Dog in the common Halan dialect.
Darius held his sword up, ready to strike if the man made any attempt to attack. The dust had receded with the slowing of the contingent but a large cloud still passed through them. He shielded his eyes and coughed. By the time the dust had settled, the Halan contingent was upon them.
The leader heeled his horse and jumped off. Darius realized his jaw had dropped and closed his mouth. The man stood over a foot taller than him and the crown on his head was made of bones and embedded in his skull. His chest glistened with sweat and even though, he did not carry a weapon on him, Darius knew he was the most dangerous warrior he’d ever seen.
The man came upto them and surveyed all the men with a keen eye. “Who are you? And what are you doing in these lands?” The man’s voice sounded like boulders rolling down a hill and his common tongue was heavily accented.
Darius expected Rorash to answer but the man stood frozen. He rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to speak, when Mad-Dog barked himself, “Ah…the gladiators… from the bandit lands eh? Do you bring good sport?”
“Yes, Ash’kamar. We have lost just one man in four months this time.” One of the Halan bandits named T’sharra answered.
“Really? I would love to chew on some good meat. The Halan men today have grown as weak as the weaklings from the Throdden empire.” The man guffawed releasing a copius amount of spittle all around.
Darius adjusted his grip on the sword but did not lower it.
“Sure, Ash’kamar. Tarvus here is the finest swordsman among us. But why are you here?”
The man stepped in front of Tarvus and cocked his head, looking him up and down. “The king sent me to round up all those who were affected by the quake and bring them to the capital. By Zehrul’s wrath, finally we could have been rid of the weaklings but the king has other thoughts.”
“But as you can see, we are fine.” Rorash said.
“No we are not, Rorash.” Tarvus interjected, to Darius’ surprise. “We are low on provisions and we will never make it back to our lands and I don’t think the villages here will be much help anymore.” Tarvus looked at Mad-Dog. “We would be grateful if we could accompany you to the capital. And I am the champion. We can have a battle in Skala, although I’m sure I am not match for you.”
The big man bared his teeth, two on the lower jaw missing. “This one shows spark. I will enjoy slicing your limbs.” He guffawed again.
Darius felt that he wasn’t joking about severing limbs.
“Come along with us, but we need to check the villages on right up to the Wall of Green before we can return to Skala. Round up your men. We leave in in two hours.”
A cry of relief and chants of Ash’kamar rang out within both the Halan forces and the bandit camp. Rorash gave them a menacing look.
Darius smiled at the former captain. “Well negotiated.” He patted Tarvus’ back. He’d never thought going to the Halan capital would make him happy. I can finally be done with this Arbok cursed mission.
A pungent smell hung heavy in the air almost as if a fog lay over the fields. Caranne pulled his scarf around his nose tighter. The bandit lands had never been densely populated but the sheer lack of people on the road astounded him. The closer he got to Baravth, he passed through completely abandoned settlements. He thanked Sucellok that he carried provisions for it seemed like the people had migrated completely. A nagging feeling told him that the townsfolk had migrated to the Empress’ new city. Any loss of support could prove fatal to his plans. The thought of black rock jutting from the earth send shivers down his back.
He saw a lantern through the tendrils of descending darkness of the dusk. Caranne squinted to get a better view. He could make out three riders approaching the village. He soon heard loud chatter among the men. Evidently they had spotted him as well.
Caranne slowed his horse a trot, when one of the men called out to him, holding up the lantern. “Finally, one of the commanders turns up.”
Courash stood with two more men, evidently his underlings.
“Courash.” Caranne acknowledged the bandit. “Where’s your commander? And what gave you the gall to summon us commanders? And where are the others?”
“I don’t know. We were delayed on the way and only reached here an hour back. But the village is empty. As were a few on the way here.”
“With trampled grass and crushed ground all around, as if thousands walked past?”
The bandits nodded in unison. “I don’t understand. Master said he would be here.”
Caranne’s ears perked up. “What? The Master is supposed to be here? Is he the one who called us?” Has Dah-Kun received my message? No, this meeting was called before I even sent mine.
Courash’s snarl was evident even in the drying light. “Evidently, there is no one here. I summoned all the commanders. And evidently no one but you turned up. Because the Master asked me to, once he heard that I had procured his secret weapon.”
Caranne had heard about some weapon that the Master had consigned to be obtained from the Blood-Dune islands and one of the commanders, Barak, had been assigned the task. He smiled. Barak was a cold and calculated leader who did not tolerate braggadocios like the outspoken bandit. But till then, he would put the bandit in his place. “Oh, so finally you prove worth more than a fish. Six months after you were given all your boats?” He clapped slowly.
Courash snarled but he knew the bandit wouldn’t dare touch him. “It isn’t long that the Master will hold me far above you. I know how much this means to him. I know how desperately he has been looking for this. And I braved the Blood-Dune islands, the cephalans and captured a blasted royal ship.”
Caranne’s face froze. “You did what?” The bandits had never antagonized the Throddens directly and they had been happy to let them spread their roots. Dah-Kun had specifically told them to stay off the Empire’s radar for this very reason. For all the contempt he held towards the Throddens, he’d appreciated that they had kept all the states under firm control. He knew the power the Empire wielded.
“Shocks you, doesn’t it? Yes, I survived the cephalans.” The bandit gloated.
The fool thinks I’m impressed by his tale of those monsters. “I do not care if the cephalans munched on your brain. But yes, I am shocked that even a buffoon like you would attack a royal ship. The Master had asked you to never engage the Throddens. So why?”
Courash didn’t back down. “It looked like a fine big ship with lots of loot. It’s not like we lead a royal life. We get by on scraps. Not like you commanders. Besides we sank the ship. No one will know.” He spat on the ground. “Besides it was because we attacked the ship that we found the island the staff was on.” He grinned as he pulled out a five-foot staff wrapped in cloth.
“And who will you give it to, since there is not a soul in the village?” Caranne felt irritated with the bandit.
“Well, we don’t know there is no one.” One of the other bandits spoke up and then, was immediately admonished by Caranne’s glare.
“So, you haven’t even bothered checking the village thoroughly.”
“We thought we would do it the morn…” Courash started.
Caranne cut him off. “That’s your problem. You think too much and don’t do anything. You come late yourself after summoning us. If I had come earlier and not found you, I would’ve carved you up worse than Arbok’s back. As I’m sure the Master and the other commanders will.”
Courash’s face betrayed a crack in his confidence and he pounced.
“Pull out all lanterns you have. We are going to search this village right now.” He directed all the badnits.
One of the bandits pulled out a lantern from his pack and then fiddled for a good minute trying to light it.
Good, let them feel the fear. Through he felt ragged and tired he had to know what had happened. As much as he hated Courash, he knew getting the staff to Dah-Kun was an imperative step in the fruition of his goals.
Baravth appeared a complete mess, unlike the other villages he’d crossed. Clothes lay littered about on the ground and pots and pan lay about in the open, swarmed by flies. The whole encampment seemed deserted. How long has it been like this?
The horses’ hooves crunched on what sounded like glass. Caranne halted and looked down. Glasses and plates lay strewn about a dead bonfire which was strangely overrun by weeds. He hopped off to examine the plant.
“Bring down a lantern.” He knelt down and rubbed the triangular leaf in his palm. “I said give me some light down here,” he growled and turned towards the three bandits.
But the men were frozen in their saddles, looking ahead into nothing.
“What in Sucellok’s name is wrong with you?” Caranne went up to Courash. The man’s face was expressionless, as if hypnotized by a showman.
He used to stirrup to boost himself and slap the man but it drew no reaction except to turning him in his saddle. His heart started beating faster. What is happening? Is this magic? Panic struck his heart. Is this the Empress’ doing? Caranne calmed his breath and pulled out his sword from the pack. It wouldn’t do to lose his wits.
The other two bandits were similarly indisposed. He also pulled out the wrapped staff from Courash’s grip and put it under his left arm. If the men were in someone else’s control, he couldn’t afford to lose the staff. He also pried out the lantern from his hand.
He swung around the lantern both way. The vines with the triangular leaves spread all over the ground and seemed to be the source of the pungent smell. The leaves got dense as he advanced further till he came to one of the huts swarmed with the vines.
Caranne slashed away the vine covering the doorway and lifted the lantern. His heart froze. Dah-Kun lay sprawled in the hut, his eyes as glassy as the bandits he’d left in the middle of the village.