Date: Mother’s Day, 15th Dar 798 PL (Late Evening)
Location: The southern banks of The Ka’al River, somewhere south of Muan Oasis.
It was late into the evening by the time the bedraggled column of chattel limped into the welcome embrace of the riverside oasis. The day had been mercilessly hot. There were two fewer refugees this evening than there had been last evening; their exhausted bodies regretfully abandoned in the desert where they had fallen. Jendai and Selar, leaned heavily upon one another at the head of the column; the young Omar brought up the rear with the prisoner.
Jendai led the weakest to the water’s edge and stayed with them, helping them to drink, eat and bathe. Only after those who couldn’t help themselves were settled did the wererhino allow himself to sink waist deep in the river and recover from the ordeal. The journey had been long and taxing and the oasis was a welcome respite.
In the morning decisions needed to be made: should they remain here and recoup? Should they send scouts to Muan Oasis? Should they wait until the group was strong enough to travel together? Should they avoid Muan Oasis, the nearest settlement altogether, and head upriver and seek refuge in the mountains instead? Or downriver toward the distant city-states? Or even try to return to Banu where the chattel wagons had begun their ill-fated journey?
In the morning these decisions needed to be made, but for tonight the escaped slaves fell into the cool, cool waters of the Ka’al River. They nursed their wounds, eased their battered emotions, filled their empty stomachs with fresh fruit, drank their fill and marveled at the eldritch flames that still danced upon the water’s surface.
Date: Moon’s Day, 16th Dar 798 PL (Daybreak)
Location: The southern banks of The Ka’al River, somewhere south of Muan Oasis.
Omar rose early and allowed himself the luxury of a long swim – but the superstitious barbarian kept well away from the strange flames that danced upon the river’s surface, he’d have no truck with such arcane nonsense. After he was done he climbed up the river bank and gathered a handful of fruits for himself and the lizard man.
Omar had secured the prisoner to a tree before collapsing into exhaustion last night, “Should I be gathering insects and grubs for you? Or do you snakes eat real food?”
The lizard man glared defiantly at Omar, but he didn’t answer him directly. “You could release me from these ropes. Where is it that you think I am going to run to? It seems to me like you need all the help you can get just to survive out here. I was a slave to the merchants too! Just like you! Just like all of you!”
The lizard man had begun to shout and was struggling to stand, but unable to do so because of his restraints.
“No. You’re nothing like me!” Omar shouted. “You had a chance at freedom and ended up in chains again! That’ll never happen to me.”
Omar left the prisoner pounding the tree with his tail in frustration and walked away. The lizard could eat his breakfast or not, Omar didn’t care. It looked like the others were getting ready for a group meeting. Jendai walked beside him.
“I have trouble believing he was a slave. He was a guard of the merchant and was ready to attack at his orders. If he was a slave he would have taken the opportunity to attack the merchant and take his freedom. I have a growing concern as to what to do the lizardman, though. I am opposed to just killing him, evil as he may be. There are no authorities that we can turn him over to. They would most likely free him and try to enslave us again. Turning him loose seems a better alternative. As long as we send him off in an opposite direction and remain vigilant, there is little he could do against us.”
“You’re right, Jendai.” Omar snarled. “He was no slave. He is lying over his forked tongue. But it does not seem wise to turn him loose. He would bring word of our survival, he know’s how many we are, and where we are. If we’re never heard from again probably no-one will come looking for us. But if the lizards paymasters learn that we’re still alive – they’ll want their property back. We might need to kill him, even if we don’t want to.”
As the sun rose rose from behind the distant Zergoa Mountains, Jendai stood up to address the group. “Friends, I suggest that we stay here for two more days to recuperate, then move to the Muan Oasis. It will be a good place for the refugees to make their own choice of where to travel and we can decide from there how best to proceed. It would be a good idea to send scouts ahead, though, to make sure we are not leading these people back into the arms of more slavers. I would be happy to undertake this. Would someone care to join me?”
“If we are indeed heading into the Oasis, then we should all go. Wasting time and food for a scouting run seems fruitless to me,” the giant grumbled. “Better to have all our fighters together if any one is caught. However, I would like to hear the opinions of the rest of the group?” Gro-Malakh stared only toward Meloria, Thyana, and Grannoch, as he believed them to be of worth.
“I think we should head west.” Meloria said, thoughtfully. “Avoid Muan Oasis altogether. There will be other small settlements along the river’s course, and eventually the river will lead us into the city-states. First the City of Susa, and beyond that the capital City of Ishtaduk. And beyond that, the far west.”
“We should think about heading into the mountains." Omar said. "My village is in the mountains east of Banu and we hold no love for the fat slavers and their mines. Why head for towns that exist only to feed and water merchants? I say choose freedom, and besides, it won’t be so damned hot!”
The giant stood still for some time, staring into Meloria’s eyes while pondering her motivations, she met his gaze but remained silent. This land was strange to him, yet the wilderness all too familiar. He knew that few of these chattel would survive; nature was never kind to the weak. At last, while his eyes still transfixed her’s, he spoke; “Survival flows from this river, I will follow it as far west as it will take me. If you are strong, and value your survival as much as your freedom, then join me.”
“West!” Omar said. “But the river runs east too, and the journey is so much shorter! Are you in such a hurry to meet the fairy lords? In my village, in the mountains, people might call us barbarians but at least we live without lords and masters.”
But the angry barbarian’s words fell on deaf ears. Gro-Malakh had already turned away and set about gathering supplies, and others were following in his stead. The bedraggled refugees harvested as much fruit as they could conceivably carry: grapefruit and peaches, olives and dates, figs and lemons. The riverside oasis was a bountiful paradise compared to the poor fare the slaves had existed upon for too long. There was still a little of the dried peryton meat, but several of the former slaves had their eyes upon the fat fish that swam lazily in the shallows, and even some of the larger birds that nested in the trees above.
By the time the sun had cleared the highest peaks of the Zergoa Mountains, the chattel had turned their backs upon it’s blistering heat and began their journey west along the southern banks of the Ka’al River. The oasis fell away behind them, but it’s verdant comfort remained with the group; they felt invigorated, sated and blessed from their brief respite. Several times during the morning, the group came across animal tracks or bestial footprints in the muddy sand of the river bank. Most of these were clearly very old, but not all, some time after noon they came across the remains of a fireplace and campsite that must have been less than a few days old. But they saw no other signs of life that first day. As the sun began to set ahead of them, the group had traveled perhaps 15 miles; very respectable given the harsh terrain and the weakest amongst them.