The Escape: Part 3
“What do you mean you can’t go home?”
“Just that. Father said that even though he explained what happened, the Great Khan has had me struck from the rolls of the Elite Guard.” I hesitated. “You too.”
Uksem stared at me, his mouth open in shock.
“We’re not banished, and free to return, but not to our old posts. Father says he will take us on as his own personal guards.”
Uksem threw the spoon he had been stirring the stew with on the ground
“What’s the bloody point?” He barked. “Sit around all day and get fat while getting pushed around by warriors who aren’t fit to lick my boots?”
I sighed. “Yeah. It’s not for me either.”
“So, what then?”
I shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Maybe we should just concentrate on getting out of Cheute first.”
“Probably.” Uksem growled, as he picked up the spoon.
I lay back on my pallet, suddenly feeling tired and dejected. All my life I’d trained, day in and day out, to earn a spot on the Elite Guard. Without that, I had no idea what to do with myself. I had no clan to return to, and even if I did, such a return would be shameful. I was at a total loss. Uksem was right in that being a guard for my father would consist of mostly sitting around and not much else. Sidi didn’t often travel outside Oerigath, and when he did, the Great Khan provided him with all the guards he might need. No, an idle life was not something I wanted.
“We could set up our own warband.” Uksem said suddenly.
“That’s.” I said, slowly. “Not a bad idea.”
“We’d need a name.”
“Something to draw warriors to us, and a Rule.”
“It’d be a hard life.” Uksem cautioned.
“Probably, but we’d manage.”
“Your father might give us some funds to get us started.”
“I’ll have to ask him. We’ll have to get home first.”
“Yeah. Have you thought about how we’ll do that?”
I shook my head. “I imagine that Hunter will have a plan.”
“Yeah. Father wouldn’t have hired him if he wasn’t reliable though.”
“How’s your leg?”
Uksem grimaced. “Not great, hurts like blazes.”
I sat up and turned so I was facing Uksem.
“Show me.” I ordered.
He pulled up the leg of his woollen trousers, exposing his leg below the knee. A ring of bruised and inflamed skin encircled his leg, just above his ankle. It was clearly infected.
“A gift from the shackles.” Uksem explained.
“That needs to be looked at properly.” I said, softly. “It’ll get worse if we don’t do something about it. I’ll have to ask Hunter for clean bandages and see if he has anything to make a poultice.”
Uksem grunted. “Never thought I’d end up a slave.”
We were quiet then, until the stew started to bubble. Uksem filled two bowls and we ate in silence.
Hunter returned that evening, and sure enough, he had bandages and the makings of a good poultice, one he said would draw the infection from Uksem’s leg. That night we had more stew, with bread this time. Compared to what we ate in the slave camp, it was a feast.
For five days we stayed in the cave, building up our strength. Hunter lived up to his name and kept us supplied with meat, as well as some kind of wild vegetables. Between the rest we were now getting and the hearty food, we were both well on our way to getting back to full health. Uksem’s leg reacted well to Hunter’s poultice and was starting to look much improved. Enough that he wasn’t limping as much when Hunter allowed us outside. The snow that had started to fall as we made our escape hadn’t stopped falling. Instead it had gotten heavier and heavier, until there was now almost three feet of snow lying on the ground. I gathered from Hunter’s annoyance anytime the weather was mentioned, that he hadn’t planned for this. I’d occasionally see him sitting at the mouth of the cave, muttering to himself, as though he was having a conversation. Maybe he was praying to the Gods, or maybe he really was a little mad, either way, I wasn’t about to interrupt him.
On the fifth day, Hunter pulled apart a pile of furs at the back of the cavern. They’d been there since we’d arrived, obviously stored there in the event we’d need them. Beneath the pile were two Oerigathian sabres, a shield and a glaive.
“You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to get that lot up here unnoticed.” Hunter commented as I picked up the glaive.
The balance was perfect, the blade sharp and bright. I didn’t have the room to swing it around, but it felt good to be holding a weapon again. Beside me Uksem was looking over his sabre and shield.
“What about you?” I asked Hunter. “No blades other than your knives?”
Hunter snorted. “I have everything I need.”
Uksem whistled as he swung his sabre. “This is a damn fine sabre Taril. Your father has seen that we’d get the best.”
“He has. I replied. I looked to Hunter. “When are we leaving?”
“Tomorrow. I planned to stay here longer, but between the weather turning and there being two of you instead of just the one, sooner is better than later.”
“So how are we getting to Oerigath? Land or sea?”
“First things first.” Hunter replied. “We have to get over the bridge at Caan. There’s no where else to cross the Cush river for days downstream.”
“How will we do that if we’re being looked for?”
“Carefully, I’d imagine.” Hunter replied. “I have a contact in the village outside Caan, they might be able to give us a little help. If we can get over the bridge then we should be home free.”
Hunter shrugged. “Nothing in life is certain.”
One thing I’d discovered about Hunter, he was terrible at being reassuring. I was starting to wonder if he was just making it all up as he went. Over the last two days, when I finally started feeling strong enough, I’d been testing my abilities, just small things, lifting small rocks mostly. I wasn’t back to my full strength yet, and wouldn’t be for some time I imagined, but I was getting there. Now, once it was dark, I’d run through some drills with my glaive and see how that felt. I was certain that I’d find myself weaker than before my capture, but that would hardly be surprising. But it was still early, there was most of the day to wait, so I decided to meditate for a while, maybe that would help time move a little faster.
Night, when it did finally arrive, was cold but clear. The snow, it seemed, had stopped falling. I poked my head out of the cave and spotted Hunter a little bit away, leaning against a tree, his back to me. He seemed to be talking to himself again. I stepped out into the snow and saw him straighten. Hunter turned around and glared at me. Behind him, something flew off into the night.
“Trying to sneak up on me?” Hunter growled.
“No.” I replied and gestured with my glaive. “Just wanted to do a few drills. If we’re leaving tomorrow, I want to be ready.”
“Don’t let me stop you.” Hunter growled and stalked back into the cave.
Had I just caught him up to something? His annoyance at me was suspicious, as was whatever had flown away when he turned to confront me. I put my thoughts about the man aside for the time being and began working my way through some basic drills. At some point, Uksem joined me, working through his own set of drills, and in the darkness, we started to feel like everything was going to be alright.
In the middle of our respective drills, Uksem suddenly stopped.
“I won’t go back.” He said, firmly.
“Hmm?” I asked, stopping my own drill.
“The mine.” He clarified. “I’m not going back to the mine. If I’m going to die, I’ll die with a sword in my hand, not down some hole, and not as a slave.”
I nodded. “We’ll go down fighting.”
“Damn right.” Uksem replied, softly.
We slept long that night, well into the morning, and when we woke, there was no sign of Hunter. It was a little strange as every other morning, he’d been nearby. I stuck my head out of the mouth of the cave and discovered that it had started snowing hard again, very hard. Another foot or so of snow had fallen during the night, and it was still coming down fast and thick. If the cave mouth wasn’t so sheltered, we might have had to dig our way out. I had no idea how we were going to get down the mountain without getting lost, I hoped that Hunter knew what he was doing.
An arrow ricocheted off the cave wall beside me and skittered along the floor. I ducked reflexively, before peering out into the snow again. I saw four of the mine’s guards wading through the snow, being led by a squat man, dressed in furs, who was somehow walking on top, making a beeline towards the cave. We’d been found.
I sprinted back through the cave to the cavern and found Uksem laying a fresh fire for some more of the stew.
“Guards.” I hissed, as I grabbed my glaive.
Uksem tossed aside the kindling and grabbed his shield and sword. He tossed me the other scabbarded sabre and I belted it on.
“Ready?” He asked, taking a deep breath.
I jogged back to the mouth of the cave, focusing my mind for the fight. I stepped out of the cave into the small clearing and waited for the guards to come to me, letting them flounder in the deep snow. The guards saw me and started pushing through the snow as fast as they could, shouting to each other and drawing weapons. The man in the furs was the man with the bow and he loosed an arrow straight at me. I reached out and with a small bit of effort, nudged it off course. I had to be careful, I didn’t have the deep reserves that I normally would have, so I couldn’t afford any extravagant displays of power.
The guide’s eyes narrowed as his arrow missed and he loosed another. I nudged that aside as well, same as the first. The guards had almost reached the clearing though and I couldn’t afford to stay focused on him alone. I swung my glaive around, loosening up a little as I sidestepped away from Uksem. The mine guards were winded as they came into range of my glaive, it couldn’t have been easy wading through all that snow. I thrust my weapon forward, aiming for the nearest guard’s shoulder. The guard managed to deflect it, but it was a small matter to pull back my blade and thrust it forward again, this time to the opposite shoulder. The guard turned his shoulder slightly as he floundered onwards, and my blade slid off his shoulder armour. His three friends were right beside him and they were totally focused on me. I used another burst of power and threw some snow into their faces, blinding them for a second, long enough for me to thrust my glaive into the neck of the first guard. He went down in a shower of blood as my blade severed an artery.
Uksem had taken their moment of blindness to launch his own attack. The furthest guard from me was struggling to fend off my brother warrior, but he was managing it, if only just. That left two more focused on me. They surged out of the deep snow and split up. I brought my glaive in close to my body and changed my grip, now using the weapon like staff. It angered me to realise that I was struggling this much, when only months earlier, I could have fought all four on my own, with ease.
I slipped left and right, working my glaive and parrying the guards’ swords. They were clearly used to working together, and they gave me little in the way of openings to use. Back and forth we went, as sweat ran down my forehead, despite the cold. I had no time to wonder how Uksem was faring. That I was only fighting two guards, rather than three indicated that he was still alive. I slipped on the slush beneath my feet and time slowed as I fell. I had time to realise I was now a dead man, as I watched both guards attack, my lack of defence giving them the opening they needed. All that was left for me now was to wait for the inevitable.
I felt a hand grab my shoulder and yank me back, out of the way. I was pulled so hard that I slid along the ground and came to a stop several feet away. In front of me stood Hunter. His hands looked like they were taken from some nightmarish creature, massive, almost deformed claws, where his hands should be. I watched as the guards’ swords struck home, and, did nothing. It was as if they’d struck stone. Hunter took a single step backwards, and then hurled himself forwards, using his claws to rip out the throats of both warriors, before turning and leaping onto the back of the guard fighting Uksem and almost tore his head off. An arrow cut through the air and struck Hunter, embedding its tip in his thigh, and I thought him done for. But rather than fall, he spun around, pulled out his own bow from the case on his back, with hands that were now normal again, and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He nocked the arrow, drew back, and loosed it. All in the space of a moment. The man in the furs barely had time to register before Hunter’s arrow struck him right between his eyes.
I slowly stood up, making sure I had a good hold of my glaive as I did. Hunter grabbed the arrow in his thigh and pulled the it out, grunting as it came free. He threw the arrow aside and marched towards me, only limping slightly.
“What did I tell you?” He hissed, furious. “I said to stay in the damned cave during the day. Are my instructions beneath you, or are you just too stupid to follow them?”
I took a step back, keeping my glaive between us, angry that I was feeling so intimidated and angry at his assumption that it was my fault.
“They were walking straight towards the cave.” I replied, hotly. “That man in the furs was leading them right here. We were lucky that I spotted them and had time to arm ourselves. Where in the void were you?”
“Not here, obviously.” Hunter replied as he took a step back. I could see his anger draining away as he relaxed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here, and sorry for my words.” He continued, more calmly.
“You two done squaring off?” Uksem interrupted.
Hunter threw Uksem a withering look. “Yeah, we’re done.”
He turned to leave and stopped, turning back to Uksem. “You’re bleeding.”
“Lucky thrust. Nothing serious, I’ll take care of it.” Uksem replied.
Hunter nodded and turned back to me. “Go back inside. Sew your friend up and pack your things. I won’t be long.”
“What about the bodies?”
“Leave them. We’ll be gone before they’re missed.”
I slapped Uksem on the shoulder and nodded towards the cave.
“Come on, there’s still some stew left.”
Back in the cavern, I finished laying the fire that Uksem had begun and lit it. Uksem stood by his bedding and pulled off his tunic. He had a nasty looking wound in his side. It was bleeding, not heavily, but it’d need stitching up. There was none of the poultice that Hunter had used on Uksem’s leg left, but there were plenty of bandages. A small, wooden box, beside the bandages, held a needle and a quantity of fine thread. Some tailoring later, and Uksem was stitched up and bandaged.
“Remind me to not get stuck again.” Uksem muttered as he awkwardly pulled his tunic back on. “Your stitching goes about as deep as your thrusts!”
“Plenty of motivation to avoid getting stabbed then.”
“As if I needed anymore.”
I moved the pot over the fire and sat beside Uksem, waiting for the stew to heat up.
“Are we going to talk about Hunter or ignore what we just saw?” Uksem asked, after a short, companionable silence.
I shrugged. “I gather he’s a Mage.”
“Something like you?”
I shook my head. “Different. Mage’s are almost impossible to kill, according to what I’ve read. They can heal almost any wound, turn themselves into living weapons, and probably more besides. Father said that they make exceptional warriors.”
“I can see why he thinks that. I’ve never seen someone kill that fast. I’d hate to have to fight him.”
“Yeah, me too.” I replied, with a shudder. I knew, beyond any doubt, that a fight with Hunter would be fatal to me.
We lapsed back into silence, waiting for the stew.
As the sun set that evening, we were ready to go. Hunter had returned several hours earlier and spent the time making something. He tied a final knot with the end of some cord and stood up. He handed us each two of the things he’d made. I looked at him puzzled as I took the wooden constructions.
“Snow shoes.” He said cryptically.
I was still unsure about how they were supposed to be used, but I just nodded, sure I’d find out soon enough. While Hunter had been crafting the so-called snow shoes, Uksem and I had been modifying our fur blankets. Each blanket now had a hole cut in it, so they could be worn like a tunic, a simple belt around the waist sufficed to secure it about us. This meant that our arms were free, and we wouldn’t need to toss the furs off if we needed to fight. With the cloaks put on over, there was no danger of us freezing to death.
Once outside the cavern, Hunter showed us how the snow shoes were to be used. They were secured to our boots by simple cords. As I discovered a moment later, getting them on was the easy part, walking in them was more complicated, as it was all too easy to tread on one snow shoe with the other.
“You’ll get the hang of it.” Hunter assured us, as I picked myself up off the snow, again.
The snow shoes were a revelation though. Instead of floundering through the deep snow, we were now able, for the most part, to walk on top of the snow. The plan, as Hunter explained it, was to circle around the mining camp and find the trail further down the mountain. We had to use the trail, as the terrain was dangerous during the day, but at night, in this snow, it would be lethal. With luck, we wouldn’t run into any trouble, but if we did, we’d be ready. Once we were down the mountain, we’d circle wide around Caan itself, and hopefully find a safe place to lie low for the day. In the village of Cush, outside the gates of Caan, Hunter had a contact, who, he assured us, would keep us hidden. Just before dark we’d cross the bridge before the town guards closed the gates and with a little prayer to Har’ab for luck, we’d be free and clear. I had some reservations about the plan. We were counting on an awful amount of luck to see us through and even though the nights were long this time of year, I wasn’t certain we could reach Cush before dawn. I said as much to Hunter, but he waved away my concerns.
We set out, Hunter setting a slow pace to give us time to get used to the snow shoes. Uksem appeared to be getting the hang of them, but I was still tripping over my own feet. I had no idea how Hunter was able to find his way, but he led us out into the fading light with sure strides.
An hour later and the last of the daylight was gone. I kept an eye on Uksem’s back, and he, I hoped, was following Hunter, who was somewhere ahead. There was very little sound, mostly just the sound of my own breathing and the crump of snow compacting beneath my feet.
Another hour passed, and another. Finally, I saw Uksem stop. I stopped beside him, breathing hard.
“He said that we’re around the mine now, and he’s going to check around to make sure we’ve not been spotted. Another half hour from here and we’ll be back on the trail, he says.” Uksem explained, quietly.
“That’s a relief.” I replied, in a whisper. “This is damned hard going.”
“Yeah, but easier than trying to wade through it.”
“Gods yes. It’d take us days to get this far if we had to do that.”
A whisper of movement and Hunter appeared almost noiselessly beside me.
“If you two are finished nattering like fishmonger’s wives.” Hunter admonished. “Come on, and keep your bloody eyes open and mouths shut. From here on, there’s a good chance we could run into mine guards.”
The night moved on slowly, as we made our way down towards Caan. It was closer to an hour rather than half, before we found the trail. The snow lay thick upon it, although not as deep as further up the mountain, it was still a hinderance. Hunter ranged further ahead than earlier, now that it was much harder for us to get lost, so there would be less chance of us stumbling into anyone.
The tree lined trail between the mine and Caan twisted and turned, always seeking the gentlest inclines. Sometimes this meant running along the edges of cliffs with long, fatal drops. Sometimes it meant snaking through tight canyons. Carts had to make their way up and down the trail, usually heavily loaded, so the easiest route had long ago been determined. Where nature hadn’t cooperated, then the route had been hacked out by slaves. The night was still and silent, with that heaviness that usually preceded a heavy snowfall. I hoped it would hold off till the morning. The last thing we needed now was more snow.
Uksem, ahead of me, held up his hand. I slipped over to the edge of the trail and into the trees. This was the second time in the last hour we’d had to hide. For such a cold, winter’s night, there were far too many guards out. I watched as Uksem also left the trail and then settled in to wait.
A short while later, five warriors, each carrying a lit torch, marched by. These weren’t mine guards, these were warriors from the town. I could hear them grumbling to each other as they passed me by. They were obviously not very happy. I couldn’t make out if was just general unhappiness being out on such a cold night, or if there was something specific they were unhappy about. I waited until they were out of sight before making my way back on to the trail.
A few hours before dawn, we left the mountain. Ahead of us, I could see the gates of Caan. Closed, and lit with torches. Hunter led us away from the trail and took us on a wide circle east, around the town, well out of sight of anyone on the walls. There were several farms that we had to be careful of, and we gave them a wide berth, passing through empty fields. We had removed our snowshoes on the lower reaches of the mountain, there being far less snow this low down. Only a foot or so lay on the ground. The first time we encountered a fence, I was thankful. I could only imagine how awkward climbing over a fence would have been if we’d still had the snowshoes attached.
As we approached Cush from the east, Hunter again warned us to remain as quiet as possible, and to do exactly as he said. His contact, apparently, while willing to help, was not willing to bring the attention of the local warriors down on himself. I could appreciate that. We made our way through the village and arrived at a large house with an attached stable. Hunter led us into the stable and we waited, as he left to speak with the owner. A short time later, he returned and pointed to the loft.
“Put your weapons and furs up there and follow me. Our host wants to meet the person who is causing so much trouble.”
“Trouble?” I asked, as I threw my glaive up on to the straw covered loft.
“Word of your breakout has gotten down here.” Hunter explained. “There were some house searches over the last few days, but not yesterday, so we may have gotten lucky.”
“They really don’t want me escaping do they?” I swore.
“Looks that way. I’m starting to think I should have asked your father for more money.”
“How does this affect your plans?” Uksem enquired.
Hunter shrugged. “Not certain yet. They may be more observant at the gate. Maybe extra warriors, maybe not. We’ll have to wait and see.”
“Why is he helping us?” I asked. “What does he gain from this?”
“His family used to live in the mountain.” Hunter answered. “They lived there for generations. As he tells it, his family lived there when the clans of Semar and Oerigath were all one and followed their herds back and forth across the plains. About thirty years ago, someone found gold in the mountains and before his family and their neighbours knew what was happening, they were forced to move down here. The mine now sits where their village used to be.”
“I’m guessing he took issue with that.”
“To put it mildly. In his younger days Alram and a group of his friends used to attack shipments from the mountains. All they ever did was annoy the Lord of Caan, who put a bounty on all of their heads. Alram was never caught, but many of his friends, and many of the people from the mountains died as a result. He gave up the life of an outlaw and turned to trade, but he maintains contact with people like me, just for the chance to spit in the eye of the Lord of Caan.”
I pulled my furs off and tossed them up with my glaive onto the loft. “I suppose we should meet our host then and thank him.”
Hunter nodded. “Remember what I said. Don’t annoy him and don’t make him nervous. If he changes his mind, there’s no where else for you to hide, except out in the cold.”
Hunter led us into the house through a side door. Large for the village, the house was richly decorated inside, although not extravagantly so. A large man wearing a thick woollen robe was waiting for us, sitting in a cushioned chair by a table, to one side of the room. There was some bread and cheese sitting on a plate on the table, as well as a bottle of wine.
“So this is the cause of all the trouble.” The man announced as he levered himself out of his chair.
“It seems so.” I replied, stepping forward. “Thanks for taking us in.”
The man waved away my thanks. “I assume Hunter told you of my background.”
“Good. I took you in because you may be of use to me, it wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart.”
“Something for something.” I smiled. “What can I do for you?”
“You can answer a question for me.”
“Why is the Lord of Caan, Elric Aradus, so concerned with your capture?”
“Before I answer.” I replied, slowly. “I have a question of my own.”
Alram scowled. “It’s bad form to answer a question with a question.”
“It is.” I replied. “But it may be important.”
“Ask your question.”
“What is the Lord of Caan to Lord Ivo Aradus?”
“Ah.” Alram replied. “The Lord of Caan is Ivo’s older brother.”
“Maybe you’re asking the me the wrong question then. A better question would be, why is Ivo Aradus so concerned with making sure I’m not free.”
“Interesting. So, tell me.”
I smiled. “Is some of the food for us?”
“Stop messing about and answer him.” Hunter growled.
Alram gestured towards the table, indicating that I could take some food. It was nice, for the first time in months, to have a measure of power. I cut a slice of cheese and took a bite before answering.
“I imagine.” I answered, smugly. “That Ivo would rather I were dead, seeing as I know that he killed the king.”
I took another bite of cheese.
Alram, looking stunned, dropped heavily into his chair.
Even Hunter looked a little disturbed.
“How would you know that?” Alram asked, after a moment.
“Because I was there. He said I was the one that killed the king, but that’s not true.”
“You need to leave.” The large man whispered. “Now.”
“That wasn’t what we agreed Alram.” Hunter said, cutting off my reply.
“You didn’t tell me why he was being hunted. I imagined he was a fellow outlaw or some such, maybe someone with information I could use against Elric, but this is too much. Elric, or more properly, Ivo, won’t stop hunting this man. I can’t be a party to this.”
“We stick to the plan.” Hunter insisted. “It’s the best chance of getting us out of here, and away from you.”
Alram rubbed a hand over his face and sighed wearily. “You’re right, of course. Get some food into you, and –“
A loud banging rang through the house, interrupting Alram. The door on the other side of the room opened and an older man stepped in.
“Lord Caan’s warriors outside Alram.”
The large man paled, and his mouth dropped open. Hunter never hesitated.
“Upstairs.” He barked. “Alram, I’m an old friend of yours, just arrived. I’m a hunter. Same story we used years ago. Have Hugo put these two in the attic.”
Alram hesitated, but Hugo, a servant presumably, waved for us to follow him.
Uksem glanced at me as Hugo led us upstairs at a quick march.
“I won’t go back.” He said, firmly.
“Escape, or die trying.” I replied.