Date: Love’s Day, 13th Dar 798 PL (evening)
Location: Western Banks of the Ka’al River, north of Banu
It seemed like only minutes ago that he had felt the soft touch of the woman’s hand next to him as she asked, “Are you okay?”
With the pounding in his head, the stench, the darkness and the horrible heat of the wagon hold Selarcould think of but one reply “Am I dead?”
It seemed a legitimate question. He had been sentenced to a public execution. The last thing he remembered was watching the party of all parties through the barred window of his cell as the new leaders of the slums where he had grown up celebrated the arrival of a new era. As Selar watched the fireworks and listened to the music coming from the streets below, someone must have entered his cell and hit him hard on the head knocking him unconscious. Now he was here. But where, exactly, was here? The woman patted his shoulder and said, “No, my dear, you are not dead. But once you realize your situation you might wish that you were.”
The slaves hadn’t seen daylight now in a week – at least no more than filtered up through the cracks in the floor. The caravan had settled into a routine as it made it’s way northwards for the brickyards of Yhakkoth. The three massive wagons began to roll each day at dawn; an hour or so later five guards – troglodyte ghilmen, themselves slaves – brought water and soup for the slaves and checked their shackles. In the evening, they returned again with more water and the wagons rested for the night. The only time this routine had been broken, was a few days ago, when the caravan paused to toss another unfortunate woman into the hold.
They were bound for the city of Yhakkoth, this much they knew. A frontier boom-town, that had long since bust. The City-Gods there had embarked upon an ambitious new project to build a imposing new mosque in honor of a witch and the heroes who had been instrumental in saving their city from a demonic incursion last year. It was a controversial move, as worshipers of the forbidden Old Faith witches were outlaws. The guards had been overheard whispering rumors that the Sand King himself was unhappy.
But, for Merchant House Summonel, the slave labor and building supplies they were transporting could be their last hope. The Merchant Company had lost an entire caravan and all of it’s goods last year during Yhakkoth’s troubles; and just last month Merchant Captain Sara and her caravan had ventured into the desert and been lost, with all hands, to pirates.
The temperature inside the slave hold was terrible during the day. There was almost no ventilation, very little light and not much room. The slaves all wore heavy leather manacles on their wrists and ankles, in addition to a leather collar. The manacles and collars were secured with an elven hair rope that allowed them each just enough slack to reach a shared chamber pot in the middle of the slave hold, further ridding them of any dignity they may once have had. The rope ran through a bone loop set into the wall and was secured from outside the hold.
Outside, the troglodyte ghilmen marched alongside the wagons, armed with shield and spear and overseen by the merchants themselves who rode within the wagons. Mounted outriders ranged ahead, scouting for water and watching for danger.
Thyana had spent the last few months trying to protect her dignity as best she could, in the midst of dozens of unfortunates like her. She barely ate or talked, and shame led her to resort to the chamber pot only when she could no longer do without. Often she cried remembering the life that was taken for granted a few months ago. She had thought it was difficult then, but now she would give her life to return to that familiar routine.
Thyana had been forced from the hold of a ship to a city, and from there to another city and another slave hold – this time within a huge wagon drawn by giant turtles in the middle of a scorching desert. The elven girl had suffered her captivity poorly, she barely recalled it, as if it had happened to someone else. Thyana had passively endured every humiliation and abuse.
The last few days in this desert had been particularly grueling, forced into the midst of men and women resembling jackals in a fiery and smelly wagon. Thyana felt some affinity toward Meloria, the sibeccai woman who was only recently brought aboard, but her other companions remained unknown slaves. But she had barely expressed this empathy, despite having begun to pick up the language of these people.
It was a relief when the wagons finally came to a halt for the evening and the guards returned. Two of the troglodytes stood in the doorway, while the other three moved among the slaves with bowls of water and steaming soup.
“Just give me hers and get out of here, it stinks badly enough in this pit without you bastards crowding in.” Meloria said when Thyana flinched away from the offered bowl.
The troglodyte was disinterested. He passed Meloria the food and drink and moved along to the next prisoner while his companion checked their restraints. They moved through the hold until everyone was fed and then departed, barring the door behind them.
Night came quickly in the desert and the temperature quickly plummeted in the wagon. The merchant’s campfires allowed the barest of light to flicker through the cracks in the floor, but no warmth at all.
A horn blasted out waking those who had fallen into a fitful sleep. There was confusion and movement inside the wagon, coupled with yelling and bustling coming from outside. A second horn was followed by sudden urgent shouts and yells from outside. Nervously, Selar tested his restraints. He realized they were sound and would require significant attention and focus if he were to be free of them.
Since awakening in this place, and no longer being in the custody of Banu’s Templar’s a flame of hope had stirred with Selar. His head still ached and throbbed, but no longer did the headsman’s axe hover above it. He might have been sold into slavery, but he was alive and he intended to stay that way.
“Stand to!” A voice cried, the horn echoing again, it sounded like it was coming from the roof of the wagon. “Stand to arms!”
“The Goddess needs no temple!” An accented voice cried out, it was outside the camp, but close enough to be heard. “Your King must cease building his false-temple or not a single caravan will ever leave the desert.”
The sounds of chaos erupted outside and rapidly escalated. The merchants and guards could be heard rushing by the door to the slave hold, their booted feet clomping above their heads to the armored stations on the wagon’s roof.
A great multitude of cheering, jeering voices had risen in support of the challenge from outside the camp; cheers which quickly turned to battle cries of, “For the Goddess!”
“What is going on?” Thyana asked, finally speaking.
“I don’t know.” Meloria replied. “They must be desert folk, Bedouin and dervishes. They would be the only ones foolish enough to invoke Our Mother, the Goddess’ name so openly. It makes sense they would oppose the Unseelie temple construction in Yhakkoth.”
Selar’s mind raced, taking in all that was around him. There must be a way out of this he thought, and he impulsively tried again to free himself from his restraints, but they were too secure. He was unable to free himself either by force or guile.
Across from the Selar and the women, Omar stood up quickly at the sound of battle. The tall sibeccai had strained against his restraints many times since being locked in here, but even his formidable strength had been insufficient to free him.
A cry arose within his chest, “For the Goddess!” he struggled to break free with sheer desperation and brute force. He lunged toward the giant, also imprisoned in here. “Help me brother. With your back and mine we might be able to break these damned shackles.”
Before Bareshar could respond a loud explosion rocked the wagon violently. Sharp, jagged light flashed immediately outside; the panicked shouts quickly turned to cries of pain and agony.
“Leave now. Leave your wagons and your goods and go!” The accented voice boomed across the desert, obviously magnified through some arcane means. “Leave or you will never leave. Your bones will be picked clean by the desert and your sorry souls returned to the Goddess.”
The voices of the merchants and their guards shouted and screamed from outside and from above. It sounded as if many were losing the will to fight, but few were fleeing. Where would they flee to?
“Fire!” The order came from above the slaves and was quickly followed by the sounds of the ballista on the wagon’s roof being fired. It seemed, as far the slaves could tell, the ragged defenders were standing their ground.
Selar followed the other escaped slaves out of the filthy hold, his head pounded with pain, and his vision blurred. The hallway was narrow and dim. Two separate ladders led upward to the ballista and archer’s nests on the wagon’s roof. A door led outside. It swung, open and shut, banging in it’s frame.
Outside it was clear the battle was not going well for the merchants. The noise of the battle had swelled and the sense of urgency among the terrified slaves made it all the more difficult for Selar to concentrate. He instinctively reached out for the hand of someone next to him as he realized he was growing faint.
A massive scorpus warband had overrun the perimeter of the camp. Even as the door swung open and closed, the violent melee raged closer and closer. The troglodyte guards were simply no match for the fierce desert barbarians. They would be upon the wagon in mere moments.
It was impossible to guess numbers, but the warband looked to be 100-strong at the very least. The man-scorpion barbarians screamed warbling, ululating shrieks and war cries in their native tongue, and battle cries of “For the Goddess!” and “Death to the Unseelie!” in broken Faridian.
Further down the hallway, beyond the swinging door, there were more ladders to the roof, and several more doors leading outdoors, a final door led to the wagon’s main cargo hold.
Omar impulsively abandoned the plan to reach the roof and leaped from the open doorway. He landed nimbly on the desert sands, less than thirty feet away from a skirmish line of troglodyte guards. The guards were pressed hard, battered, bleeding and demoralized before an unstoppable foe, but with no hope of escape.
“Bareshar, follow me, brother!" Omar cried out. "Selar, bring the women, we’ll clear the way! Forget the roof! We’ll take our chances outside.”
Thyana had suffered enough submission, she flinched at Omar’s barked commands. But now was hardly the time to discuss manners with the sibeccai barbarian.
“Selar, is it?" She said. "We need weapons and shields and we’re not going to find any waiting here.”
Selar could barely hear what was being said to him but his heart raced with the possibility of freedom, however dangerous, he shook his head, allowing the adrenaline to clear away the pain (for now, at least).
Omar hit the ground running, expecting the others to follow his lead, but not waiting for a moment to see if they did. There simply was not time for thought or discussion. If any of them were going to survive this, they must take action now.
Omar surveyed the battlefield, desperately searching for a gap in melee. There were slim pickings (and slim hope, he realized) but, toward the front of the wagon, the attackers had been felled by a deadly barrage from the ballista above. Omar had found what he was looking for and he rushed that way, bent low and stealing a curved falchion-blade from a barbarian’s crushed grip as he passed.
“Weapons and a shield?” Selar smiled, despite himself. It would be amusing to see himself armed and armored as heavily as the Royal Templars who’d marched into the slums that day with their swords at the ready, their bright and shiny shields blazing in the unforgiving sun. Selar has never so much as owned a weapon, much less a shield, and why would he? He’d never needed more than the small dagger he’d used to cut fruit and toss at targets for fun. He could hold his own in any street brawl, but his own style of petty thievery had never required the use of weapons. He had always relied on his speed and cunning. This was just too much!
His head span again, Selar’s eyes felt as if they were burning as fiercely as the wagon was by now. He stepped forward to follow Thyana and Meloria outside, but he stumbled and fell from the wagon door landing sprawled at their feet in the sand.
“I don’t think he will be useful," Thyana said to Meloria. "He seems barely able to stand on his feet.”
Bareshar had never seen scorpions, much less scorpus before, and he didn’t like the look of them. They looked like spiders, he thought, and that was reason enough to ignore the reckless Omar! Bareshar turned away from the door and quickly scaled the ladder to the roof.
“Big friend, try to take a weapon for me too." Thyana shouted. "I have to stay and watch our comrades.”
Three sibeccai merchants, with scimitars at their hips, were manning the ballista. They were panicked and frustrated, colliding with each other and getting in one another’s way more than helping each other. It was a wonder they had managed to strike the barbarians below, at all! They certainly hadn’t noticed the mighty Bareshar emerging onto the firing deck behind them.
The elven girl rested her hands gently on Selar’s shoulders, and helped him to his feet. The troglodyte guards were now less than twenty feet from them, and there were decidely fewer of them. The ring of scorpion-men about them had tightened, it seemed Omar had found the only gap and that moment had passed.
“Selar? Did they hurt you? Do you think you can run away with us and the others?"
“I was hit on the head and it must be worse than I thought." Selar answered. "I will certainly do everything I can to escape this place.”
Lightning bolts crackled over their heads from somewhere behind the barbarian’s line, striking the wagon and blasting a hole in it’s wall, wrecking one of it’s wheels beyond repair.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
Omar had kept running, as low as the tall barbarian could, and as fast as he could until he was sure he had passed through the scorpus lines. Omar was far from a coward, but he’d raided enough mining camps and wagon trains to know how this would end. The hefty sword in his grip felt good.
“OK, that’s far enough,” he barked and dropped to the sand, concealed from the battlefield by a dip in the sand dunes. It was only then that he realized that nobody was behind him! Those idiots, he thought, there was only one chance and they hadn’t taken it! Were they happy being slaves? Well not me, thought Omar!
From his vantage point atop the dune’s crest, Omar was able to see the whole battlefield. The three massive wagons, that made up House Summonel’s slave caravan were completely surrounded. Two of the three were burning, but there was no sign that the slaves in either of the other two vehicles had escaped their shackles. The troglodyte guards had been all but overrun, their corpses lay strewn across the desert, hacked to ribbons by the barbarian’s blades and axes or contorted in agony after being pierced by the barbarian’s venomous stingers. The merchants themselves had retreated into the remaining wagons, manning the ballistas, but without much hope.
The only guards that still resisted were those around the wagon that Omar had only just now escaped – and there were precious few of them. Omar could see what they could not, tiny flitting figures zipping through the air behind the scorpus. They were barely inches tall, barely visible in the evening twilight, but they were clearly the fairy magic-users who continued to launch spell after spell at the merchants and their wagons.
Omar turned his attention to the slaves he had just left. The ones he’d thought were right behind him. Bareshar emerged onto the rooftop of the burning wagon and threw himself at a ballista crew. The merchants were desperately occupied with manning their ballista and they failed to notice the escaped slave appear behind them; Bareshar had wrestled one of them to the deck and crushed his throat, before either of the others could draw a blade. Omar watched as Bareshar snatched up his fallen foe’s scimitar and charged at the others.
The other escaped slaves, some dozen or so, had gathered outside the stricken vehicle. They were largely ignored by the barbarians who boarded the wagon behind them, now that the ballista above had fallen silent. Omar watched as the naked elf helped the slave with the broken head back to his feet.
- * * * * * * * * * * *
“I don’t think we will be able to fight our way out of this one even if we did have weapons.” Selar said. A wave of adrenaline filled him and he searched for a clear path through the crowd, as he had done so many times before. It had always been a specialty of his to navigate through a crowd, the explosions around him were just what he needed as a distraction.
“Ladies, I think I see a way, follow me.”
“Anything you say mister," Thyana was still clumsy after so long in chains. "Let’s run the hell out of here.”
Thyana, Meloria and the others fled across the open battlefield following Selar. They fled toward the front of the slave wagon, and ducked through the tangled mess of ropes and chains below the hitching posts.
“Wait a second.” Thyana shouted as she paused by the corpse of a fallen merchant to relieve him of his scimitar and dagger. “You see, I was in the village militia in Anupam. I’ve always been skilled with swords and blades in general. I was so proud of my ability to fight two or three men at once during sparring sessions, and in real battles. But then sea elf slavers attacked us when most of our warriors were out hunting. The few who remained and who were able to wield a weapon, did so, but the enemy was too numerous.” She paused, saddened. “I killed two and wounded three myself, but in the end… well, you see me now. But chatter can wait, as can taking some clothes, that would require too much time. Let’s go.”
Thyana followed Meloria and a skinny looking gnome as Selar led them away from the wagon, across the stained sands of the battlefield and up the steep side of a sand dune. Behind them, the last of the troglodyte guardsmen fell and the barbarians fell upon all three of the merchant wagons, dragging the remaining merchants out onto the sand and piercing their bellies with their dripping stingers.
Suddenly, Omar’s voice bellowed from out of the darkness “For the Goddess! For freedom!” followed by the heavy-set sibeccai, skidding and sliding down the steep sand bank toward them wildly brandishing a huge curved blade.
It was not only the fleeing slaves who were momentarily startled by the young barbarian’s violent charge down the dune – a blue skinned fairy with a scorpion’s tail was suddenly right before Selar’s nose. A spellflinger, she cursed, as the spell she had been about to loose was startled out of her. The fairy’s wings fluttered furiously as she spun about trying to keep eyes on both Omar behind her and Selar’s band of escapees in front of her.
Selar jumped back, startled by the small blue creature. “What in the world?”
Was this an hallucination caused by the bump on his head or was the fairy hovering before him real? Selar reached out to touch her and the fairy darted sideways with surprising agility, he noticed she wore the most extravagant tiny jewelry: bejeweled rings, glittering bracelets, a dazzling necklace and delicate piercings, but she wore nothing else besides a tiny green silk cloak that was so fine it was barely visible.
Selar’s instinct set in and he realized he may have to do some quick talking, “We are not of the people who drive this slave caravan. We are here against our will and mean you no harm. That barbarian over there is a slave just like us. Is there any way you can help us? Some are injured and we are most certainly lost out here.”
As the words left his mouth Selar realized his adrenaline rush was coming to an end. His head began to throb once again and darkness descended across his vision. He knew he was going down when it felt like the sand was beginning to swirl beneath his feet. Suddenly Thyana was beside him, the elven girl was surprisingly strong as she supported Selar in her arms.
“Come on friend, I don’t know how to deal with the fey but I don’t think starting to hack at them would do us any good.” Thyana said, shaking Selar gently, and keeping one eye on Omar as he careened down the slope.
Behind her, the gnome Grannoch cursed quietly to himself, begrudging the idea of an apparently worthless battle, but realizing there was little to be done to stop it now. He observed that, while the small faerie was clearly outmatched at the present, the most useful course of action would be to defend against any others heading this direction, and to that end, he began sketching a rune in the sand.
The damned fairy was faster and further than he’d thought, but at least he’d scared the spell out of her. Omar’s charge carried him slipping and sliding down the sand dunes and he hadn’t arrived to parlay with the magic user.
“Goddess!” Omar bellowed as he launched himself into the air over the last few feet. The massive khopesh sword flashed above his head in a deadly arc. The heavy blade caught the fairy across her back, destroying her wings and driving her into the sand with a terrible force. The diminutive spellcaster began to spasm violently, in the center of a rapidly spreading crimson stain in the sand. She had no chance to even cry out.
Selar would have fallen if it were not for Thyana’s strong grip, in fact he almost did slide to the sand as the elf readied her newly acquired blades. He tried to call out to Omar, “No! Don’t hurt her!” But he had been too weak and too slow to prevent it.
“Sorry friend,” Thyana said to him. “Damn, as if we don’t have enough enemies.” She was uneasy at the weight and balance of her new weapons, I haven’t trained in, how long? Two? Three months? I hope my body remembers how it is done; more these aren’t the weapons I was used to, and I’m all but naked."
Selar tore a long strip of cloth from the bloody turban he had snatched from one of the fallen during their escape and tied it tightly around his head, relieving the throbbing ache in his skull. He turned to Thyana, “Thank you for your help. I probably wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for you.”
“My pleasure friend." Thyana said. "We are all in the same boat now, so we have to cooperate.”
“Your fight was with the slavers, small one. You should not have hindered us.” Gro-Malakh said, to the dying fairy. He turned to his fellow slaves. “Keep moving, those who fall behind will only cause our deaths, should we remain.” He started to move away from the caravan, ready to strike down anything that might block his path.
Meloria and the other slaves didn’t need to be told twice. They fell quickly and silently into line behind Gro-Malakh following the giant’s deep footsteps, past the fairy, and toward the peak of the sand dune.
As the escaped slaves reached the crest of the dune and began down the far side, Thyana approached Omar, her left arm around her breasts, “I still have to thank you for giving me and the others this chance. I usually would have disagreed with such reckless behavior, but I don’t know this land or its peoples. I have been brought here against my will so I need someone I can rely on now; I hope my skills will soon be fully restored, so I can be more useful. I’m Thyana, may I know your name?”
Omar glared down his scarred snout at the naked elf, his gaze lingered unashamedly on the ample bosom she was failing to conceal, “Don’t you worry yourself, little woman. Omar al-Talilal is my name and I will give you plenty of opportunity to express your gratitude soon enough.”
Thyana was obviously not happy that the large sibeccai eyes were lingering on her privates, but she was more concerned with survival, and so she simply turned away.
A double explosion echoed from the far side of the dune, as Grannoch’s hastily sketched runes deterred their pursuit. The escaped slaves picked up their pace, disappearing into the darkness, the flames of the destroyed caravan illuminating the night sky behind them.
The pursuit they had feared never came. But the night was far from silent. The barbarians could be heard loudly celebrating their victory over the merchant-slavers, sounding horns and beating drums and raising their voices in song to the Goddess; but they seemed unconcerned with the fleeing slaves.
The slaves crested yet another dune and slid down into a steep, sandy ravine on the far side.
“We will need to search for water, food and shelter. Those who do not assist, will not be fed. Those who hinder the group, will be left to their fate.” Gro-Malakh said, as he pondered the likelihood of finding enough food and water for this pitiful band of slaves. There certainly was nothing in sight, and likely little for endless miles. The desert sands of Farid were notoriously unforgiving.
“Does anyone know where we are?” Omar asked. “It seems to me, we should wait until those scorpion bastards have left and then salvage the wreckage. If we just head out into the desert, we’re doomed.”
Selar said, “I have no idea of where we are, my new friend, but I fear by the looks of things we are surrounded by a vast wilderness that we would be incapable of navigating in our current state. I have to agree with you that waiting to loot the wreckage might be our best option. I must admit I find myself at a disadvantage as I have never been far from the city I grew up in although with my new found freedom I am eager to to take on any challenge before me.”
“Well said Omar." Thyana agreed. "I, too, think we need to salvage more from the wreckage; hopefully some clothes too, I wouldn’t like to be forced to choose which way should I express my gratitude.”
“A logical plan." Gro-Malakh said. “But it could take some time for the barbarians to leave, and we do not want to be in their warpath when they do. I will look for water and food in the time being. Elf, take these.”
The giant ripped the legs off of his sack-cloth pants and tossed them to her. Thyana caught the voluminous rags and wrapped her slight frame easily within them, thanking him as he moved away from the group to begin his search for water.
“Will need real clothes for the day, for traveling under the desert sun, but for now these will do. Hope the scorp-barbarians will leave some merchant’s corpse his desert robes. I cannot imagine they would have use for such things, but could as well tear them apart just to emphasize their victory.”