Grey hung naked against the night, the growing ache his arms and shoulders intensifying as he was stretched nearly to his limit between the two large trees. Tipping his face upward as best he could with the thick gag pulling against his jaw, he took yet another scrutinizing look at the ties around his wrists. Experimentally, he flexed his fingers. Cold prickles were sneaking their way down, heralding an imminent loss of sensation.
He thrust his weight to the side, jerking against the tattered bindings, but the effort only bit them more savagely into his skin. Grimacing, he desisted, only to have them tighten again as he glanced down and flinched reflexively away, shying from the nearest of the filthy, pillaging grakken gnomes.
Grey stared down at his knee-high adversary, wariness growing by the second. The little creature was holding a crude-looking spear, and Grey tried to blame his sudden rush of gooseprickles on the chill of the mountain air, rather than the grakken’s eager expression.
It darted forward, jabbing at the meat of his thigh. On instinct, Grey twisted, limiting the piercing thrust to a glancing blow, but the ragged edge still stung across his flesh. Sucking in his breath, he bit back his stifled oath and ground his teeth against the wad of cloth in his mouth.
The spindly grakken skipped back, capering on knobby legs as it hissed out a mocking chortle.
Grey spared the grakken a venomous glance but then refocused on the task at hand.
Lips curling under, he worked his mouth around the gag. The coarse texture of his own shirt against his tongue served as a vivid reminder of how the evening had so suddenly mutated out of control--the grakken horde stumbling across his camp while he’d slept. His pants had fared no better, it seemed, as evidenced by the twisted strips looped around wrists and ankles, now effectively cutting off circulation to his distal appendages.
A billowing whoosh rose from the fire in the center of the small clearing as yet another one of his possessions was deemed worthless and hurled into its midst. Grey squinted as the air shifted, driving a cloud of caustic smoke into his face. Bile rose into the back of his throat as he tried to cough through the gag, and he turned away, struggling to breathe and blink the sting from his eyes.
The wind shifted again. Swallowing back his gorge, he cast a nervous, watery glance at the two fat-pines he’d been strung between.
Fates, those flames had better not get any closer or these trees are going to go up like torches—and me along with them.
A shadowy movement from around the fire brought Grey’s attention back down in time to see a different grakken, this one a bit larger than the first and with three feathers adorning a heavy armband, reach down and retrieve a length of burning wood from the conflagration.
This one must be their tiny chief, Grey thought in distaste, attention focusing on the new threat.
With measured consideration, the feathered grakken turned toward him, holding the burning torch tightly in its gnarled grip.
Sweat bloomed on the exposed flesh of Grey’s body and he swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat. Great Fates, my night is definitely not going as planned.
The feathered gnome began its approach, its bulbous, yellow eyes searching Grey’s person as it neared. Its focus never wavered, even as it skirted one of its kin dancing around the small clearing, one of Grey’s shirts wrapped around its warty head like a headdress.
The speculative drumming of the chief’s claws along the shaft of the torch had Grey’s insides squirming, and he tightened his jaws as he watched its steady yellow gaze light briefly on foot, then knee, then… He blinked when he saw the grakken’s intention and looked down. Oh, bloody shades…
Frantic, he ground his teeth, jerking at his ties, searching the area for anything that might be of some use to him.
In the distance beyond the fire, he caught the movement of two smaller gnomes rifling through his saddlebags. Blinking, he looked again, then swore furiously around his gag.
Without warning, Chief Feathers lunged at Grey’s leg with the burning wood. Heat seared up the besieged appendage, triggering a cry of muffled agony.
Grey panted as the sensation withdrew. Bright spots popped before his eyes, and he blinked hard, attempting to clear his vision.
The figure of the grakken chief slowly wavered back into view. Steadying himself, Grey refocused on the looming threat; he wasn’t sure what the knobby little creature had in mind for the immediate future, but he knew, without question, his tender bits were in clear and present danger—and he wanted no part of that.
Incentive reaffirmed, he put even more intensity toward the struggle against his bonds; working his mouth, trying to use his tongue to expel the bundled gag, cutting through the soggy fibers with his teeth.
Desperate, he craned his head around to stare into the trees. Where are you, Steed?
The grakken chief struck out again, and again, Grey cried out. The pain was less this time though, fading quickly despite the lingering burn of adrenaline running up his thigh. The jab itself had been fairly swift, just aimed for an area Grey had an overriding, instinctive need to protect.
Unexpectedly, then, the gnome spoke, croaking out harsh, guttural words.
Surprised, Grey stared. …Hooka Choppa… …What?
He unclenched his fists and spread his hands, raising his eyebrows in an attempt to communicate that he had no idea what the little gnome was trying to say.
The chief repeated the phrase, more intensely this time.
Fighting panic, Grey rolled his eyes and gestured helplessly to the gag in his mouth.
Beyond the fire, a gleeful cry rose from the party of gnomes rummaging through his saddlebags. Grey looked up in alarm, face draining of color.
Oh, Fates. They found it…
Two of the grakken had extricated Grey’s staff from its sling and were holding it triumphantly in the air between them. Multicolored glints of firelight reflected off the jewels embedded in its head as they bounced it to and fro.
Grey ground his teeth harder in trepidation. He could not allow that to fall into the hands of the grakken, not under any circumstances.
The chief’s lips peeled back over grimy teeth, a disturbing leer growing in proportion with the horrified expression on Grey’s face. It tipped its dusky, gray-green head back to the others and made a sudden grunt, drawing their attention. A muttered comment passed between the chief and the pair holding the staff, and, hissing in acknowledgement, they proceeded to scratch and scrabble at the stones, attempting to pry them loose with their thick, gnarled claws.
Heedless of the potential consequences, Grey shouted past the interactable gag, scuffing and rolling his neck in wide circles, working with single-minded purpose to push the binding down the back of his neck.
It was shifting, but slowly. He kept an eye on the little beasts’ warty hands as they dug at the priceless stones, trying to convince himself he shouldn’t worry; the staff was spell-crafted wood. It would take a great deal more than those grimy claws to wrest the precious gems loose.
A fingerbreadth more progress on the gag and Grey was able to shove the dirty mass of cloth out from behind its binding. It fell to the ground before him with a soggy flop, and he sucked in a triumphant breath. A thin strip of the twisted homespun still remained between his teeth, but with the bulky wadding now out of the way, it was much more maneuverable.
Lifting his head, his efforts to worry away the rest of the gag froze.
The enterprising little gnomes had given up on their attempts to prise the gemstones from their settings by main force, in favor of levering the heavy staff between them to hover above the fire.
Flinging himself forward, Grey shouted at them, thrashing against his ties.
Chief Feathers cocked a warty brow, considering. Then, with noted deliberation, thrust his torch directly at Grey’s inner thigh.
Grey screamed. Hair shriveled and flesh seared, flames licking right up to—and over—exactly where Grey had desperately not wanted that fire to go.
The contact was brief, but blinding. Sweat poured down his body, and his chest heaved from both pain and exertion as phantom sensations went on burning beneath his skin.
Evidently content with the state of him, the grakken chief turned away to check the progress of the pair holding the staff. Jeers and chants were rising from the rabble, and they watched in wild anticipation as a thin film of char began to spread across the bejeweled head. Grey didn’t know if the staff’s wood was durable enough to withstand fire, but he knew he could not afford to find out.
Panting, he lifted his head once more and began methodically rolling his neck around, scraping the side of his face as best he could against his raised shoulder over and over, pulling the cloth down bit by bit over his jaw.
At long last, the binding fell to loop his sweat-plastered neck. His dark hair, no longer restrained by the encompassing gag, fell forward into his face to hang in lank, sodden tendrils.
Mouth finally clear of any impeditive debris, Grey tossed his hair to the side and spat a few remaining fibers from his tongue. Curling his lips tight against his teeth, he whistled—loudly.
As one, the gnomes all turned to stare.
He hung there, awkwardly, spread wide between the two sturdy trees—an offended silence the only accompaniment to his shrill outburst.
The fire popped and crackled.
Grey held very still.
Chief Feathers muttered something back to the startled clan. A wicked laugh rippled over the mob, and they began to slowly converge on him en masse, Chief Feathers in the lead.
Grey threw his head back over his shoulder and shouted, “Steed!”
The gnomes were closing in on him now. Frantic, he whistled one last time as he fought to escape the chief’s inexorably advancing fire.
Hoofbeats sounded in the distance in a measured two-part beat.
Grey craned his neck in the direction of the sound but could find no visual signs of impending assistance. He turned back, recoiling when he saw the mob had completely closed the distance. Dozens of toothy faces stared transfixed, gleefully following the course of their chief’s hissing torch, now making its way back to what Grey knew would surely be a point of no return.
“Steed!” Grey cried, voice shriller than intended as the heat from the nearing torch became tangible again. “Put a little effort into it!” And the cadence increased to a heavy, pounding canter.
Heat blossomed into pain. Grey dropped his chin and gritted his teeth against the noises the fire was dragging from his throat. He felt the hiss as the glowing tip made contact with his skin, and he lost grip on his restraint. Throwing his head back, he howled in agony.
Underbrush exploded to his left. Shadow and muscle and mass burst into the camp and the grakken scattered before the oncoming hooves of the giant black charger.
Grey gasped as the flames disappeared, dropping his head and panting as his vision drifted in and out of focus. Then he blinked, squinting over at the flicker of light hovering at the edge of his vision.
The torch was still there. The little chief had apparently discarded it in favor of his spear—which he was now brandishing at the large stallion. The discarded torch, however, so quickly and carelessly tossed aside, had come to rest at the base of the fat-pine which held firm the tie attached to Grey’s bound left leg.
“Thank the Fates for small favors,” he muttered, and he thrust his foot forward, angling the rope to hover above the sputtering flame.
Chaos ensued around him. Steed was dancing and kicking at the grakken as they attempted to surround and overtake him. One powerful hoof struck out and sent a smaller gnome tumbling across the ground to land beside Grey’s staff, now lying, apparently forgotten, on the forest floor. Firelight rippled along Steed’s glossy black coat as he reared up, tossing his massive head and flinging away a gnome who had managed to leap up and seize a handful of his dark mane.
Thunder rumbled beyond the trees, and a cool breeze rippled along the forest floor, lifting the hairs at the base of Grey’s neck as leaves brushed by his ankles. The suddenly heavy air smelled of water and dust, and Grey looked to the sky in time to feel a single cold, wet droplet plop onto his face.
“Hadjaa ghas…” he swore through clenched teeth. Then, because that didn’t seem nearly sufficient, he continued to swear in the common tongue as he stretched to the very limit of his reach, closing the distance between his ropes and the rapidly shrinking flame.
Another gust of wind blew through the clearing, rustling the underbrush and billowing the central fire to further illuminate the surrounding battle. Steed had seized a wooden club in his teeth, the owner of which was still attempting to maintain its grip, screeching as Steed swung it wildly through the air.
The wind rose again, fanning the stuttering flame at Grey’s feet.
Suddenly, the brush at the base of the fat-pine whooshed into orange and yellow flickers, the infant flames licking merrily at the extended rope.
“Hah!” Grey cried in triumph as the twisted cloth began to crackle and smoke. He struggled, pulling and twisting until abruptly, the charred fibers gave way and he staggered, catching his balance with his one free leg. Cold rain began to patter on his exposed flesh, and his body gave a convulsive shudder.
Shaking off the sensation, Grey flexed his ankle and knee in a brief moment of relief before returning his attention to the torch, still burning at the base of the tree. He reached out with his foot, hoping to nudge the stick to the opposite side and, maybe, free his other leg. Though, how he would get his arms free… Well, he would just have to be creative.
His foot brushed the shaft of the torch, but, try as he might, he couldn’t quite wrap his toes around it. He strained helplessly, but the more he struggled, the farther out of reach the torch slid.
With a flash of heat, the bark of the fat-pine ignited, sending tendrils of burning sap racing up the papery bark in fiery rivulets.
Grey gaped in disbelief as the flames began consuming the towering, resinous pine.
“This really! Can’t! Be happening!” he shouted, gritting his teeth and punctuating each word with a furious jerk on the rope.
Steed was still stomping and kicking at the attacking gnomes as Grey fought in vain to escape the trees. Rain was beginning to fall steadily now, the heavy, cold spatters causing a new level of horrid sensation as the water ran down his contrastingly overheated skin in icy runnels under his extended arms and down his body.
And yet doing nothing for this bloody fire!
Grey could feel the veins pulsing in his temples as he pulled with all his strength, arms bunching and shaking with strain before the attempt died. Gasping in a quick breath, he tried again, but the heat was overpowering him, and he soon began to sway and sag against his bonds, fatigued muscles twitching continuously with involuntary shudders.
A stray grakken, having been unwittingly turned into a projectile by one of Steed’s massive hooves, tumbled against Grey’s legs, dazed. It flopped over as Grey used his free leg to weakly kick it aside, spear still clutched in its knobby grasp.
Grey took one heavy breath. Then another. Then one more…
The rope attached to his left wrist was actively burning now, but the skin of his hand felt like it was about to burst apart. Grey was having serious doubts as to which would burn away first—the ropes, or his skin.
Raindrops hissed as they fell against the flaming trunk, misting impotently away on contact with the burning wood. He wouldn't get any help from the sky.
Rotating both hands around in desperation, Grey closed his fingers around the twisted ropes, grasping the bindings tightly in his strong, broad grip. Muscles quivering with strain, he pulled with all his remaining strength. Flames licked at his clenched fist, and he screamed through rigid jaws as his whole body began to shake. Still, he pulled harder.
The tie snapped.
Grey collapsed to one side as the shock of searing heat gave way to the icy prickles of rainfall. He panted, leaning against the far tree, cradling his burned hand against his chest. Blisters were already rising on the abused flesh, and some of the skin along the outside of his palm had blackened and was peeling away.
A wave of nausea nearly took him to his knees at the sight, and he struggled against a sudden burst of stars behind his eyes. Breathing deeply, he fought to remain conscious.
Finally shaking the stars from his eyes, he turned to stretch out with his free leg toward the spear, still held by the stunned grakken gnome lying at his feet. Grey struggled until he hooked the little spear with his foot and then drew it to his side where he was able to maneuver it up into his free hand. The tool was difficult to manage, hand badly burned as it was, but after a moment, Grey was able to begin sawing at his remaining bonds.
The chief, having finally caught notice of what was happening between the trees, gave a furious howl and charged at Grey, spear upraised. Grey didn’t slow in his work but gathered up what little strength remained to him and coiled it all into the kick he delivered to the chief’s bony head.
His balance faltered a bit from his momentum, but the blow was sufficient, and Grey savored a moment of vindictive pleasure as he watched Chief Feathers tumble out of sight.
Not pausing to gloat, he turned back to his work, continuing to saw at the remaining tie. As the last of the fibers finally gave way, Grey let out a primal, choked exhalation, suddenly able to stagger free of the trees and release the strangled breath he’d been holding on to.
He allowed himself only a moment to steady himself before recklessly diving over to the fire and snatching up his coveted staff, using it to help propel him over to Steed, still dancing nervously among the few remaining gnomes not yet scattered during the melee.
Grey swung the staff like a club as he ran, mowing down attackers as he cut a path toward his towering mount. Reaching the stallion, he grabbed a fistful of black mane and used his momentum to swing up onto the horse’s back.
Digging his bare heels into Steed’s ribs, Grey wheeled him around and fled, bareback and naked, into the rainy night.