Once the sun set, the men in the room released Stellan and threw him an old tattered cloak. The men put their own cloaks on, pulling the hoods over their heads, and waited until Stellan did the same. Looking at them, you wouldn’t throw a second glance, as the clothes were just dirty enough to belong to a hard-working person and not someone living on the street. Stellan admired the attention to detail as the muscled man pushed him out the door and closed it behind them. Stellan was worried about his gear but hoped that his judge would send it to him. At the very least, he’d get Snowshade back.
They left the inn and started down streets that Stellan realized were taking them to the gate he’d come through yesterday. The guards posted there gave them no trouble as the smaller man walking in front exchanged a few words with the man in charge. After the smaller man showed something, all three of them were ushered through. Walking a short distance away from the gate, they reached a wagon with horses waiting on the street. A well-built man was speaking softly to one of the horses, while two others, dressed similarly to the ones escorting Stellan, stood guard at the back. Stellan and his group approached, and the smaller man in front went to speak to his fellows guarding the back. After a short exchange of words, the men that brought him left. The wagon guards cut Stellan’s bonds, shoved him inside the wagon, and tied his hands again, this time in front, so at least he could cushion his fall if need be. The wagon was covered by a tarp on all sides, making the interior pitch black. Stellan sat quietly for an unknown time until the entrance flaps moved open, and the night’s gloom hurt his eyes. A rough shove pushed a woman inside. Stumbling, she took a seat next to Stellan, her body slamming into his and settling in place.
“Oops, ’orry” she slurred and pushed off of Stellan like he was a wood beam, “these idiots don’t know how to treat a lady.” She said, trying to sound outraged, but all she managed was moody irritation.
The wagon started to stink like the inside of a barrel after the woman was left behind. Because of the darkness, Stellan couldn’t get a good look at her, but what he did notice was short blond hair and fine clothing. The slurring and smell spoke for themselves. The new arrival fidgeted for a few minutes and mumbled something that Stellan couldn’t catch, then finally fell asleep, her left shoulder using his for support. At an unknown interval later, a youth was pushed inside as well. Again, Stellan couldn’t get a good look except that it was a boy of maybe sixteen or seventeen. He and the woman had no binds, Stellan noticed begrudgingly. The flaps didn’t close this time.
“What’s this?” the man talking to the horses poked his head inside and looked at each person. “You said two! Why are there more here?”
“New arrival. Silvermight’s direct orders,” one of the guards replied, “stop fussing, Oak. You’ll get word soon enough. This got decided today, so don’t get prissy with me. Get on the wagon and move.” The guard and the man he called Oak shared a look.
“Alright, alright,” Oak conceded finally and waved the guard away. “More people to haul around, just great.”
The two guards closed the flaps and tied them shut from the outside. Soon after, the wagon began to move at a steady pace. Stellan tried to close his eyes and get some rest, but the recent events kept him awake, and angry. His nostrils flared as he struggled to keep from standing up and starting to thrash around. The wagon slowed, and a sound caught Stellan’s attention. He looked over the dozing woman’s head and saw a knife’s edge cut the back flaps. It continued slicing down until it almost reached the floor. Two small figures passed through the new opening.
“Kids,” Stellan judged by their size.
They made out the youth in the darkness and inched towards him.
“What are you doing here, idiots?” the young man whispered. “I told you to go to Steph!”
“We didn’t want to go to your yucky girlfriend, Wyn,” the boy holding the knife said as a matter of fact. “We’re here to rescue you. After that, we’ll run away together.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the shadow behind him added, nodding its head enthusiastically.
Their older compatriot put his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes.
“You’re friend’s shit outta luck lads,” the woman next to Stellan said, frightening the two would-be rescuers. “There’s nowhere in the kingdom you can run from those fellas, trust me.”
“If you’re awake,” Stellan said, turning to her, “lean on something else.”
“Ouch,” the woman sucked air through her teeth and said with a mocking tone. “Is that any way to treat a lady?”
“I’ve never seen a lady get hauled around like you, much less get as drunk as you smell,” Stellan shot back and pushed her off.
“You probably haven’t,” the woman agreed. “Since most ladies strive to get blackout drunk in the privacy of their homes. You boys look like you know your way around the streets. You should know where we’re going. Right?” She spoke to the smaller figures.
The cut in the flap provided enough light for Stellan to see that they were both boys. The one holding the knife was putting on a brave face, but the other one’s was as white as the streaming moonlight. The woman nodded after seeing their expressions, satisfied with the non-verbal answer.
“She’s right,” the youth said and urged them. “Go on back and stay with Steph like I told you.”
“No, we won’t,” the paler kid said in defiance. “We’ll come with you, Wyn. Even if it’s to the camps.”
“Children, we’re not going to the camps,” the woman said, shaking her head. “We’re going to join the soldiers and clear out the inner territories of monsters.”
The boy holding the knife lost his composure, his face changing color and rapidly trying to outmatch his companion’s. Stellan could intervene and tell the woman she was wrong as well, but strictly speaking, they would have to gather the men in the squad and then set out for the outer territories. This information wouldn’t do any good right now, so he kept it suppressed. These kids, however, were going to be a problem. He couldn’t afford to take them to what amounted to a death sentence. That was probably the road the whole squad would be walking, but Stellan could help those who wished to learn. He could make their chances of survival higher.
“Still, they’re just children,” the thought made his insides cold as a fog rolling in after rain.
Stellan leaned forward enough for some of his scars to be visible.
“The knife, boy,” he said and extended both of his hands forward, the scars along his arms reflected the moonlight, making them look like a carpenter’s practice board.
Stellan was trying his best to scare the kids into running, so he added an angry scowl as well. The boy’s knife hand began to tremble much more than before. Stellan hoped the scars on his torso were visible as they got the biggest reaction from people. The woman leaned in, blocking some of the light.
“Wow,” she gasped, standing up and sitting on the opposite bench just next to the standing boys. “You’re one tough son of a bitch.” She added as her shameless stare ran up and down Stellan’s body, lingering for a moment on his marriage bracelet.
“And just my kind of treat,” she said as her eyes opened wider in the dark.
“Shut up,” Stellan snapped at her, his tone so intense that she involuntarily whipped her neck back and kept quiet. “Give me the knife and leave.” Stellan repeated in a much lower and menacing volume.
The wagon stopped, and the driver stepped down, then circled back to the flaps.
“What in the name of the primal flame?” Oak poked his head through the cut, then back out. “Who did this to my beautiful wagon?” He untied the flaps and climbed inside.
“Who are you?” he demanded as he grabbed the boy, wrenching the knife out of his hands. “What is this, an escape attempt?”
“Yeah,” the woman chimed in sarcastically. “I paid these strapping lads to break me out of this impenetrable cloth prison. It’s two urchins trying to save their family, can’t you tell?” With the additional light, Stellan saw the woman roll her eyes.
Oak threw another glance at the boys. Noting their appearance and unfed frames, he sighed and sat down next to Stellan, rubbing his fingers on his temples.
“What about you, sir Small Mountain? These two I understand, but what are you doing here?”
“Trying hard not to get killed,” Stellan replied. “We’ll both find out exactly what we’ll be doing soon enough.”
With those cryptic words, Stellan stopped engaging the man in conversation, which didn’t deter him even for a moment from asking more and more questions. Finally, he gave up and got out of the wagon.
“You two, with me in the front. I can’t have you sitting here and trying to run off. You’re all our problems now,” Oak said, waving the boys over.
The young man gave them permission with a nod, and soon the wagon resumed its travels. The woman eyed the seat next to Stellan. He gave her a look that suggested he would snap her neck if she tried. This deterred her, for now. Swaying from the bumps in the road, sleep finally caught up to Stellan. Images of his lost prize floated in his mind as each passing moment took him further away from a normal life and time spent with Yazmin. He forced his thoughts to scatter and just kept the memory of Yazmin’s warmth in his mind as the wagon’s slow rocking continued.