Eyes snapping open, Feral was suddenly, jarringly awake. Still dark. A roof above, a tattered canvas, three walls of ancient looking wooden planks, the fourth a grid of iron bars. The whole thing lurched and creaked, the rumble of wheels and murmur of voices audible from the night outside.
“Welcome back,” a voice said softly from the shadows, and Feral looked up. At the front end of the wagon - for wagon it evidently was - leaning back against the thick wooden barrier that would shield the driver from the occupants, he could see two vulpani. Both were dressed in clean but crumpled tunics of brown and red, and sturdy leather boots.
“We’re friends,” the vulpani on the left spoke again. “Or at least, companions in misfortune,” he added with a bitter smile. “You have nothing to fear from us, that I promise.”
Feral nodded, slowly. “Cassanya!” he suddenly realised that the leonin was stretched out full length against the far side of the cart. She didn’t move when he put a hand on her shoulder, but she was breathing, and her heartbeat was strong. Balthor and Archer lay near by, similarly unconscious.
“Your friends are fine,” the vulpani spoke again. “Just drugged. They won’t kill us,” he gestured through a crack to where the silhouette of the wagon's driver could be seen. “We’re no use dead.”
“Who? Why? I don’t understand, what did we do...” Feral could feel himself shaking as the situation sank in, and he sat down beside Cassanya, hoping she would wake up soon.
“You did nothing,” the vulpani’s voice was soft and sad. “You aren’t here because you committed any crime, nor because you offended the wrong person. You are here because you were unfortunate enough to be in the way of our captors, at a time when you were vulnerable and they were not.
“My name is Tinnael, this is my brother, Dinnael,” he indicated the other, who looked to be a lot younger, perhaps only ten or eleven years of age. “We’re traders…” he paused, then sighed. “Perhaps I should say we weretraders. These highwaymen,” he spat through a hand sized gap in the wooden wall with surprising accuracy, “captured us as we were leaving a timber camp. I fear we will not be selling any of the carvings the people there create,” he said grimly, resting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. The young vulpani looked rather shell shocked… rather as Feral himself felt. “Yourselves?” Tinnael asked, his tone softening. “Tell me, what brought you to this unfortunate circumstance?”
“Travellers... just trying to get across the mountains. I’m Feral, this is Cassanya, Balthor, Archer,” he said, indicating his prone companions. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
Tinnael shook his head with a grim laugh. “I have already tried to bargain, but they have no intention of ransoming us. They want us, ourselves. Our strength and labour.”
“At least for now.”
“Oh…” Feral didn’t really know what to say. A silence fell, broken only by the grate of wheels on the rocky road, and the occasional talk of those outside. He noticed Dinnael looking at him, the rough blanket drawn up to his chin. The young vulpani’s eyes seemed drawn to Feral’s ears and the characteristic russet colour of his hair, clearly wondering.
“Vulpani?” he asked softly, realising his inspection had been noticed, and Feral nodded, surprising himself with the instinctive nature of the response.
“In part is all you need,” Dinnael smiled. “Glad to meet you, Feral, I hope we can be friends.”
“I’d like that,” Feral returned the smile.
“Thank you. G’night,” Dinnael whispered, and closed his eyes.
Not quite sure what to make of the brief exchange, Feral watched him for a few moments, then, without any obvious plan of action, lay down, watching the sky through the gaps in the roof and walls. Maybe Cassanya or Balthor would know what do do, when they regained consciousness...
“Wake up, scum. “
Feral jerked awake as a harsh banging sounded somewhere near his head. He looked up to find a black haired man striding across the back of the wagon, a tin cup in his hand, striking each and every one of the bars as he went. Behind him, he could sense his friends already on their feet.
“No, no, no, dogface,” the man turned, raised a small but lethal one-handed crossbow and pointed it at Balthor as the lupari grasped the bars. “You don’t speak to me, see? I speak to you, you do as I say, and in that way you stay alive. Fair enough trade for you?”
For a moment, Feral thought that the lupari was actually going to say something, but Cassanya clamped her hand over his muzzle, silencing him. The man laughed, harshly.
“She’s got the right idea, this one,” he said, nodding. “You’d do well to follow her lead, cos if I get any more trouble out of you, your ears are gonna be stitched to my hat!” Feral noticed that the man was sporting a black eye, and an impressive bruise on his right cheek. From the conversation, he guessed it was related to Balthor. So at least one of them had taken some toll on their captors! Feral forced himself not to grin.
A male leonin came into view, an iron key in one hand, a spiked club in the other.
“Time for morning ablutions! Tired of you lot stinkin' up the place! That's a perfectly good river right there, and you idlers are going in it! Out!” the black haired man ordered. “Women,” he pointed at Cassanya and indicated a female lutrani with a pike. She looked every bit as mean as the man did, and had a series of scars across her upper arms. “With 'er, over there. Rest of you, that way.”
It wasn’t the most dignified event of the day, and Feral didn’t care to focus on it. It did however bring him into contact with prisoners from the wagon that had been preceding them up the trail. A lutrani with a long feather in his broad brimmed hat, a heavyset man in the plain brown robes of a monk, a vulpani woman dressed in bottle green, and a small muscai, barely noticed among the taller crowd.
By the time they were herded back into the wagon, none of them really felt like talking. It was Tinnael who finally broke the silence as the cart lurched into motion.
“I see you have met Ironblack,” he said, looking at Balthor. “Well done, my friend, though I would see him with more than a black eye…”
“Ironblack? He’s their leader?” Cassanya asked.
Tinnael shook his head. “He wants to be. He’ll act it, push you around, make you eat dirt if he can, but he’s not the power among them. The one to watch out for is Tessa.”
“She’s a lupari woman. Although Ironblack would like to act as if he is in control, it’s obvious he’s terrified of her. She doesn’t like to get her hands dirty, but she fights like a trained assassin. I would not cross her, and nor will he. If you’ve any sense, you’ll keep your heads down when she’s around.” With that, he lapsed into silence, and would say no more.
“Hmm?” Feral looked up to find Archer beside him. A light rain was battering against the canvas overhead, but it seemed reasonably weatherproofed. Feral hadn’t even noticed it start, too lost in his own thoughts and watching the road slowly recede behind them as they rumbled and bumped up the track. Evening was fast approaching, he hadn’t eaten for about twelve hours, and he was feeling thoroughly miserable.
“Cards,” the sciurel repeated. “You play?”
“Where did you get a pack of cards?”
“Never underestimate the power of a tin of pipe leaf when in remote places, guv.”
“But you never smoke…”
Archer laughed quietly. “Nah, I don’t, but you’d be surprised what them as do will trade for a bit o’ the stuff. Now, do you play?”
Feral shook his head.
“All right, then I’ll teach you. We’ll start with something simple like five card match ‘em…”
The deck was ancient, and faded, and missing a couple of cards, but Archer insisted that that didn’t matter. There was a pile of straw in a forward corner of the wagon and, by tearing small pieces off, they managed to arrange a small pile of ‘chips,’ as he called them.
“Can’t play cards without a bettin’ stake,” he stated, and refused to consider otherwise.
The rules weren’t complex, Feral discovered, although the play was. Archer’s ability to give the impression that he had a totally different hand to the one he was holding was considerable, and Feral found it as easy to guess at the sciurel’s cards as it was to try to assess them.
After a few rounds, Feral noticed that Dinnael had been observing them play, and beckoned him over to join in.
Cassanya watched for a while longer, not really sure that she approved of teaching Feral and Dinnael to gamble – but it was undeniable that the mood in the back of the slave wagon had lifted considerably.
“What did you say it was worth when they’re all the same suit?” she asked as Archer prepared to deal another hand, and he grinned at her.
Later that night, the wagon driver cast a glance back towards the prisoners. It was late, cold, raining, and his left leg was falling asleep. The prisoners hadn’t been fed since morning, hadn’t been allowed out to exercise, and should by all rights be as silent and miserable as any other group they’d hauled up the mountain… and yet for whatever reason, there they were, talking, laughing, and apparently having far more fun than he was. It was all very strange. Not to mention annoying, he decided, grunting and pressing a hand to his aching back.
The wagons travelled on up the mountain track for the next three days, climbing steadily up the sometimes perilously narrow narrow road and switchback turns, stopping only to collect fresh water.
Over their regular card games, Feral found himself talking with Dinnael a lot. The young vulpani seemed to find him very interesting, asking about his home, his past, and his beliefs, in return offering Feral some interesting insights into parts of his heritage he knew little about. Among the rapid fire chatter about food, games, traditional stories, and numerous references to the goddess Vulpara, Feral was again drawn to the notion that among vulpani he would be considered as vulpani as any other. It seemed strange, somehow, that they should be so accepting – especially when his appearance was for the most part largely human. Yet to humans, he was always the half-race, the boy with the vulpani ears...
When he opened his eyes on the third day, the daylight was shining in through the bars of the wagon. Cassanya was sitting next to him, her hand resting lightly on the back of Feral's head as she talked softly with Tinnael and Balthor. Archer sat at the back of the wagon, playing a game of solitaire. Dinnael lay curled up under his brother’s cloak in the far corner, seemingly still asleep.
It was a tough decision to sit up, since it seemed likely that this was the most comfortable he was going to be all day, but when the wagon suddenly gave a little bump and came to a complete stop it rapidly engaged his attention. Anxious to see what awaited them, he looked out at their surroundings.
To one side, a near vertical cliff of forbidding grey rock towered above them. To the other, the blue waters of Sapphire Lake shimmered in the morning light. All around the lake, mountains rose in a towering curtain of impassable stone. A cold wind blew down their grey flanks from the snowy heights, making those below shiver.Summer in the mountains was brief, and already waning.
Along the lakeshore Feral could see a few patches of evergreen trees and stubby looking bushes dotted between the rocky outcroppings. From somewhere to the front of the line of carts he could hear a conversation taking place. Straining his ears, he heard the exchange of words conclude with a distinctly friendly tone, and the sound of several pairs of feet heading towards him down the length of the wagons.
About half a minute later, Ironblack stepped around the corner and into sight, his crossbow in one hand. He eyed the occupants of the cart for a moment. “Out,” He commanded simply, gesturing for one of his subordinates to open the door.
Feral saw the tense set of Balthor’s shoulders as the lupari moved to the door, then watched his posture slump as he looked around. Following, Feral discovered no less than four armed guards awaited them.
“Over there. Move,” the man barked, waving his crossbow casually to one side. “Line up and shut up.”
The companions felt it best to comply, for the moment at least, and shortly they found themselves lined up along with the other prisoners, their backs to the line of carts, looking out over the blue waters of Sapphire Lake. A cool breeze brought the smell of open space and fresh air, a strange contrast to their situation. Ironblack, standing to one side, smirked. “Enjoy it while you can, most of you won’t be seeing a decent view for a good long time.” Balthor glared at him, but the man’s smirk only broadened.
A commotion among a group of guards at one end of the line caused heads to turn as they were approached by what Feral assumed must be Tessa, the lupari woman that Tinnael had talked about. Nearly six feet tall, she was an impressive physical specimen, and apparently liked to make that fact obvious. A raven black mane of hair ran along the crest of her grey furred head, disappearing down the back of her neck. Clad in tight black leather that clung to her figure, she could at another time have passed for alluring. Under the current circumstances, her muscular build, the daggers at each hip, and a crooked, predatory smile combined to make her seem both mysterious, and dangerous.
She glared at Ironblack for a moment, and the man dropped his gaze. Smiling, she let her eyes wander along the assembled line of captives. “Ooo,” she clapped her hands together in a strangely girlish gesture, and hastened towards them, stopping in front of Cassanya, her tail wagging behind her.
“Oh, my, but I do need to pay more attentionto the new ones, Blacky,” she glanced over her shoulder at the man. “To think I’ve missed this one for three days! Hello, dear,” she beamed up at the leonin. “How are you? I hope they haven’t been treating you badly.”
Cassanya snorted. “They wouldn’t have the guts to mistreat me.”
Tessa laughed baring her teeth. “Quite right you are, my dear, quite right. A sorry bunch, I know, but they’re the best I can find for this line of work.” She walked around the leonin, inspecting her from every angle, even lifting her arms, running a hand along the length of her tail. “Goodness, dear, do relax. You’re ever so tense!”
Feral thought that the leonin was remarkably calm for someone being inspected like an animal at market.
“This one’s mine,” Tessa declared before looking up at Ironblack. “Any of your scum lays his filthy hand on her will lose it, understand?”
The man nodded, looking only mildly disappointed while Cassanya stood resolutely still.
“Now then,” Tessa stepped back, apparently content that she had established her decision on all present. “You are,” as you may have guessed,” she addressed the line of captives as a whole. “My prisoners. That’s not about to change, so it will do you a lot of good to stop all those stupid ideas about escape that you’re considering, especially you,” she barked the last words loudly at Balthor. “If I catch you causing trouble, then one of your friends will suffer for it alongside you.” Balthor stiffened, but kept his mouth resolutely shut, recognising that she was trying to goad him into doing something stupid while surrounded by armed guards.
“Good,” Tessa nodded. “That’s the attitude I expect. Stay silent, stay obedient, and you’ll stay alive and well. Now,” she paced along the line. “As for what you’ll be doing, well, the short answer is helping us. See, these mountains are happily rich in certain gems, and, well, I always have had a thing for sparklies,” she admitted. She raised an eyebrow as she stepped in front of the man in the monks’ habit. “You look like a man who might know something about healing.”
The man looked at her for a moment, and then nodded. “That is one of my skills.”
Tessa snorted. “Along with cooking, I imagine,” she prodded the man’s pudgy stomach with the hilt of her dagger.
The monk nodded again, still quite calm. “Another of my skills, lady.”
Tessa laughed, showing sharp canine teeth in her long muzzle. “At least you’re honest.” She moved on. “You watch out you don’t hear too much with those,” she told the muscai as she passed, nodding to the other’s large ears. “There’s a lot of things you probably don’t want to know, and most of them I would be very angry if you did. Well, aren’t you a cutie,” she paused and looked down at Dinnael. “Not going to be much of a miner though, are you?” She looked back at Ironblack for a moment, and the man shrugged. Tessa reached out and ran her hand through the fur on Dinnael’s head as the young vulpani trembled visibly. Tinneal twitched and the lupari woman's alert eyes immediately darted to him.
“Oh, I see now... relatives? Brothers even?” Tinnael glared at her and nodded. “Excellent, then you’ll not give us any trouble, will you?” she asked, walking round behind the younger vulpani and draping her arms over his shoulders in a parody of tenderness. “I’m sure we can find something suitable for him, perhaps helping our rounded friend in the kitchen,” she nodded towards the monk. “You keep your head down, and do your job, and this boy will be just fine. Are we clear?”
Tinnael nodded stiffly.
“Good.“ Tessa walked behind the line, stopping at Feral’s back. “Now you’re an interesting one,” she said, stepping in front of him to look into his face. “But quite handsome, anyway,” she completed the circle and stopped behind him again. “You’re going to have to cut back on the young ones though, Blacky, I need heavy lifters, not cooks and cleaners,” she said, putting a hand between Feral’s ears. He growled quietly.
“Spirited!” Tessa exclaimed, lifting her hand. “Good, you’ll last longer. Though if you ever growl at me again,” she leaned down and whispered into his ear. “I will personally cut out your tongue.”
Cassanya’s fist clenched.
“Friend of yours, dear?” Tessa asked her. The leonin said nothing, trying to avoid giving the woman any leverage that could be used against her. “Oh, well then since you’ve no objection, I might as well have his tongue now, just in case.”
Feral tried to pull away as he sensed the dagger approach the side of his face, but she was lightning fast. By the time his hand found her wrist, Tessa had already clamped one hand firmly around his neck with a strength that defeated his best attempt to pry her fingers loose.
“Stop!” Cassanya shouted, moving to intercept. In a blur of motion, the lupari woman twisted, released Feral, grabbed the leonin’s outstretched arm and heaved her round to slam hard into the half-race, landing them both in the dirt.
“I don’t like being lied to, dear,” Tessa told Cassanya as the feline sat up cautiously. “You’ll tell the truth next time. Just because it’s you, I’ll let it slide this time, kitten. Make sure you behave, teach your little friend some manners and we’ll leave the matter on hold.”
Feral missed the rest of the inspection, being rather preoccupied with regaining the breath that Tessa had thoroughly knocked out of him. By the time Cassanya had picked him up and dusted him off, she was walking back down the line.
“Right then, now that we’re all friends, lets get you to work, shall we?” Looking at her smile, Feral found himself wondering if this could possibly be the same woman who a moment ago had been holding a knife to his face. Even so, despite his best efforts, he found himself shaking slightly as she passed, and looking down the line, could clearly see he was not the only one.
Having declared her intentions, Tessa had left her new captives in the care of several slavers, who escorted them with remarkably little interest through a high doorway into the mountain itself. The rocky entrance looked ancient, eroded and overgrown with moss and lichen. Feral looked at the inscriptions upon the rock as he passed, but didn’t recognise the writing, and had no time to investigate further as one of the slavers prodded him in the back with the hilt of his spear.
“Light ‘em up,” Ironblack spoke as they found themselves in near darkness. There came the sound of steel striking flint, and a light flared to one side, the flame quickly distributed among the torches the slavers had lifted from an oil filled barrel just inside the entranceway. It was only now that Feral realised the scale of the rocky passageway they had entered.
Behind the entrance, the tunnel swiftly flared out to many yards in width. Stone pillars rose on either side, the darkness between them as deep and impenetrable as the shadows that hid the ceiling from view. Before them, the great hallway continued straight ahead into blackness.
“Move,” the man growled, and the slavers hefted their weapons meaningfully. Left with little choice, the captives moved forwards into the darkness, their guards close behind them, their torches casting flickering, moving shadows onto the flat, dusty floor ahead of them. Feral noticed that some of the pillars too, bore inscriptions. For some reason, he found himself keeping particularly close to Cassanya as they moved. Glancing up, he saw her looking straight ahead, her eyes glittering in the torchlight, her jaw set firm. He started to whisper a question to her, wanting to ask her what she thought was going to happen - no, actually, he realised, that was a lie. What he wanted was to hear her say things were going to be all right, because even if he knew shewas lying, it would make him feel better - but she put her finger to her lips and shook her head, and he fell silent.
Was that a light ahead, Feral wondered. More of the slavers perhaps? That didn’t seem quite right though, it wasn’t the warm light of a torch, more like daylight on a cloudy day. He supposed it was possible they were going to pass through the cliff entirely, that it might simply be a rocky ridge.
“Oh, wow,” Feral couldn’t help himself exclaiming as they passed through another arching doorway, this one higher, wider, and more finely engraved than the one outside. The cavern around them opened up on all sides to form a massive enclosed space many hundreds of yards across. That alone would have been impressive, but the great domed chamber was more than simply dark rock. Here and there, scattered like stars across the night sky, parts of the stone glowed, a cold, clear light sufficient to illuminate the entire expanse as if under a full moon.
Around the edge of the roughly circular chamber, a path perhaps twenty feet in width, raised about the same above the rocky floor. Here and there could be seen ramps or stairways leading down to the central floor, and in the middle a statue. Tall enough that the head reached halfway to the roof, it was difficult to judge the race. The ears said lupari, but the muzzle seemed too short, the tail too long. The strange face seemed to regard them with a stern, yet somehow sorrowful expression. In one hand it held a staff, a vast column of stone, the uppermost tip a bright source of light, casting unwavering shadows along the statue's carved stone armour. In the other hand it held a tablet, or perhaps it was a book. Strength, wisdom, and knowledge, Feral thought. What would the statue's creators have thought if they knew what now transpired at its feet?
“Yer,” one of the slaver’s chuckled at Feral’s reaction. “’Is nibs there is quite a sight first time.”
“Who built it?” the half-race asked, momentarily forgetting the situation.
“Hanged if I know,” the man scratched his ear and shrugged.
“And it ain’t none of your concern, either,” Ironblack interrupted coldly. “Get movin’,” he gestured to the leftward path with his crossbow.
The prisoners were guided down the nearest of the stairways to the chamber floor, and marched rapidly across to the far side. Around the sides of the cavern, four flights of steps led downwards through archways cut into the rock, swiftly ducking below the outer path and into the bowels of the mountain. Scattered across the floor, the slavers had set up camp. To one side a fire burned, the smoke rising in a column to the high ceiling where it seemed to be drawn to one side and into a fissure in the rock – a natural chimney. Around the fire, numerous pots, pans, and cooking implements were stacked on roughly made wooden racks. Several barrels and chests suggested the location of food supplies.
Around the feet of the great statue, a number of tents had been erected, presumably to provide cover from the ever present glow of the rocks. Near the camp, several slavers sat around a smaller fire, drinking something from wooden tankards while playing cards and dice. They raised their heads and glanced at the prisoners, one pointing at the lutrani woman in line with Feral, saying something that the half-race didn’t catch – but the look on the slaver’s face made his hands ball into fists.
Ironblack paused the group and hailed one of the others, who rose and came to meet him, exchanging a few wordsbefore pointing at the monk and Dinnael. The sciurel nodded, and gestured for them to follow, leading them towards the cooking area.
“You’ll see ‘im soon enough,” the man said, catching the look on Tinnael’s face as his brother was led away. “You should thank me. Couple of days and he’ll look a sight better than the rest of you,” he smirked and started the group moving again, aiming at the stairway on the far side of the chamber. It was darker in the tunnel. Only a very few patches of light adorned rock and there were long periods of darkness where the flickering light of the torches suddenly seemed far less than adequate.
After a march of perhaps a minute, they rounded a corner in the tunnel and came out into a rocky chamber, lit by torches along the walls. The middle of the chamber contained three rather grubby individuals, currently clustered around a board game that they had set up upon a relatively flat rock. Resting against the crates and barrels they were using as makeshift chairs were a number of efficient looking weapons.
Along the far wall of the chamber, a number of tunnels led away, and although they were lit only by the occasional faintly glowing rock, Feral was sure he could hear sounds of movement beyond.
“Well, good mornin’ mister Ironblack, sir,” one of the trio looked up with an ironic smile. “And pray tell, wot wonderful things do you bring us ‘umble types this fine day?”
“Oh nothin’ but the best, I do assure you, sir,” the man drawled, favouring the ursai with a smile of at least equal irony. “Just a few new ‘assistants’ to aid in your good work, and all that.”
“Excellent work, sir,” the ursai rose to a height of a good seven feet. “Right then,” he advanced and eyed the prisoners. “Well now,” he smiled unpleasantly. “Lets be thinkin’ on what use we might ‘ave for you lot then.”
“I’m fine,” the half-race grunted, sitting down gingerly on the edge of the straw stuffed pad that was laughingly referred to as a mattress. Truth be told, he ached all over, was feeling light headed from lack of food, was still damp from standing knee deep in the cold lake all afternoon, his neck was sore from where the slavers had fitted an iron collar around it, and he was thoroughly miserable, but right now it seemed like a good idea not to let Dinnael know how bad he felt. Around him, the other prisoners were settling back onto mattresses, blankets, or whatever bit of floor they could find in the cramped enclosure.
The slave quarters were considerably less comfortable than the tents that Tessa’s band had erected for themselves. The tunnel that ran from the cavern floor back underneath the entranceway swiftly broadened into a chamber about fifty feet across. Looking up to the ceiling, two shafts could be seen, rising vertically into darkness.
Upon this discovery, it hadn’t taken long for Archer, hoisted by Balthor, to nimbly ascend one of the shafts, but a violent flurry of swear words from somewhere in the darkness indicated his failure to find an exit. Dropping back down into the chamber, the sciurel announced that the top of the shaft did indeed lead out into the entranceway, behind one of the pillars... but that the top had been sealed with heavy iron bars.
“What did they make you do?” Dinnael asked quietly, his eyes on a tear in Feral’s shirt.
“They’re after emeralds,” Feral informed him, lying flat on the mattress in an attempt to ease the protests of his back.
“Emeralds?” Dinnael’s eyes went wide.
Feral chuckled ruefully. “I wouldn’t get excited. I doubt any of us are going to get our hands on them. Soon as you get a hint of green in your pan, you’ll get it taken away at sword point.”
“Oh,” the vulpani’s face fell. “Have you seen Tinnael?”
Feral shook his head. Balthor leaned over. “He was sent down the same tunnel as Cassy. They’ll probably be back soon, the guards aren’t stupid. They know they get better results out of workers who aren’t about to keel over from exhaustion... and they’ve got plenty of time.”
Looking worried, the vulpani nodded. Suddenly he started, remembered what he was supposed to be doing, and started hurrying around the chamber, collecting metal cups and plates from where they had been left. “I need to get this lot cleaned,” he said by way of explanation. “I think they’ll send food in about an hour.”
“Well, that’s something,” Archer grunted, leaning against one of the broken crates that formed the only furniture in the slave quarters.
“It may not be as good as you think,” Dinnael stuck his tongue out. “Tessa’s lot may eat well, but I don’t think we’re going to.”
“As long as its food, I don’t much care,” Balthor stated. “Another two hours, and I’ll be trying to fry yourboots,” he nudged Feral with a smile and the half-race tried to chuckle. “C’mon mate,” the lupari persisted with a sigh. “Don’t let ‘em get you down.”
Feral looked up at the lupari, and nodded. “Yeah, sure...” he said, wishing that it was that simple. He sat up and watched Dinnael hurry around the room, then scamper back to the barred door that served to keep the prisoners in their place. The guard nodded and let him through, giving him a cuff around the head for taking his time over it.
“Cassanya…?” Feral asked about a day later, reaching out to gently rest his hand on the leonin’s arm. Around them, most of the other slaves were asleep, or at least nearly so, so he kept his voice to a whisper.
“Hmm?” she opened her eyes and looked at him. “What’s up?”
“Do you… have any idea how we’re going to get out of this?”
Cassanya sighed. It was a question that she had been anticipating for a while, and she still had absolutely no clue how to answer it.
“No,” she whispered softly, shaking her head. I wish I did. There’ll be a chance though, I promise...”
Feral moved to sit next to her. “Yeah, I thought so. I also thought,” he said slowly, picking at a loose thread in the mattress cover. “That it’s more likely to be a chance that someone... strong, and fast... like you or Balthor could take than someone like me...”
The leonin looked at him for a moment, then sat up and put her arm around his shoulders. “Don’t talk daft,” she whispered.
Feral shook his head. “It’s true though,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to sneak out without a fight, Tessa’s got her men well trained... they’re too alert. Whatever comes, it’s going to need a quick reaction to take it, and you’ll need to be able to take on the slavers,” he paused. “I guess I’m saying that… if you get a chance to get out of here, take it. Don’t worry about me, or anyone else you have to leave. That goes for Balthor and Archer too. If you guys can get out of here, then go.”
A silence fell between them for several breaths. “I’m not scared,” Feral said quietly, blinking rapidly a few times, and wishing it weren’t a lie.
Pulling the half-race tight against her, Cassanya leaned so that her cheek rested against the top of his head. “Of course you’re not,” she whispered. “That’s because you know it won’t come to that. I will notleave you here, kid. I won’t, so don’t you even think about that, not for a moment. For one thing Forester will notbe happy with me if I go home without you, and for another...” she trailed off and paused for a moment before picking up again. “One way or another, when that chance comes, we all take it, ok?” she smiled and looked down at him.
Feral sniffed a little, nodded, and almost smiled. It was comforting to have a friend like Cassanya.
“There must be some way out, somewhere,” the leonin went on. “We’ll find it, I promise, together. Now do us both a favour, and get some sleep. We’ve a better chance if we’re well rested, all right?”
Feral nodded, and went back to his own mattress.
“Whoa, easy there!” Cassanya caught the elderly lutrani as he slumped sideways. The tall feline quickly lowered him to the ground, knocking away some stones so that he could let his sleek furred head lie back. “Hey?” she enquired gently as she knelt next to him. “Are you ok?”
The elder nodded weakly, his eyes closed, the dust of the mine caking his greying fur.
“Hey you, get back to work!” a guard approached from along the tunnel, crossbow in hand.
“He can’t, he needs rest, and water,” the leonin told him flatly, putting her hand on the lutrani's chest to prevent his feeble attempt to rise. “You’re working him too hard.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the slaver informed her. “Get up, both of you,” he gestured with the crossbow.
“You’ll kill him if you work him more today,” Cassanya growled, standing as bid, but stepping forwards and towering over the guard.
“That – that ain’t my problem,” the man backed up slightly, his eyes narrowing. “My job’s just to get my quota.”
Cassanya looked at him for a few moments, then bent and picked up the lupari’s pickaxe. “Then get it yourself,” she snapped, throwing it at the slaver.
The slavers raised his hands by instinct. His crossbow twanged, the bolt hitting the rocky ceiling with a loud crack and ricocheting into the dust on the floor.
“B-back up lady!” the man stammered as the leonin advanced on him angrily. “Stay back! Help! Help!”
Unfortunately for Cassanya, the other guards in the tunnel were quick to respond. Within seconds, she was held steady in the sights of two more crossbows. Glaring at their owners, she stopped in her tracks. The other workers in the tunnel paused, noticing that the attention was off them, taking a few moments rest while they watched curiously, a few moving forward. The guards glanced over their shoulders at them, but didn’t dare take their eyes off the leonin for long.
The scene held for perhaps a minute, the leonin knowing that movement would be a bad idea, the slavers not particularly wanting to kill someone whom Tessa had shown such an interest in. Not to mention she could move more rock than all but a couple of their sturdiest workers. Shortly, Ironblack came running up, apparently having been informed of the trouble by one of the guards.
“Wot in the pit do you think you’re up to?” he glared up at Cassanya.
“Stopping your slime from working an old man to death,” she spat back at him. “Any problems with that?”
Ironblack shrugged, standing in front of her, his hands behind his back, apparently not intimidated.
“Now see,” he said conversationally, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. “If one o’ my men reckons one o’ the others is bein’ a bit ‘arsh in ‘is methods and says so, that’s ok. I like that. I know tempers can get a bit frayed, bein’ down ‘ere all day, so it’s good when the lads keep each other calm. But when one o’ you filth decides to make that call,” he swung his fist with unexpected speed, slamming the brass knuckles he had just donned into the leonin’s midriff. She doubled over, winded and gasping for breath. “I do ‘ave a problem with it, aye,” Ironblack finished. He aimed a kick at her.
It never connected. The man went down with a yelp as Balthor, having shouldered his way through the onlookers, charged him, an expression of raw fury on his face.
“Don’t touch her again!” the lupari growled, pinning the man to the ground, his hands finding Ironblack’s throat. A brief ruckus ensued as the surrounding guards pounced, creating a brief tussle, which resulted with the lupari being held securely by three of them, a spear pointed at his chest.
“You,” Ironblack swore, “I’ll see you dead for that! AfterI have your ears!”
Tessa laughed as she strolled into view down the tunnel looking as relaxed as if she were taking a walk along the beach. “I think not, Blacky,” she said mildly. “I think not.” Her smile was sugar sweet, but it made Ironblack lower his weapon all the same. “You should learn a lesson from this one,” she nodded at Balthor as she came to a stop, her arms folded. “You don’t hit that girl. Ever. Clear?”
Ironblack lowered his eyes, and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good,” Tessa nodded, then moved to stand by Cassanya as the leonin knelt on the floor. “Are you all right, kitten?” she asked softly.
Cassanya looked up at her, replying through gritted teeth. “You really think he’s tough enough to hurt me?”
Tessa laughed. “Not in the least, dear, but I know he’s a dirty, sneak-attacking son of a bitch. That’s precisely why I keep him around, but as you can see, sometimes he gets off the leash and someone gets hurt. Of course, if you’d like, I’m sure we could find a better use for you than working down here and playing target for the bully boys... You look interesting, and I could always use some interesting company, especially at night...”
Cassanya blinked, frowned and looked blankly at her.
“No, then,” Tessa sighed. “Ah well, if you change your mind, just tell one of the guards and we’ll have you out of here quick as a flash and somewhere more comfortable, hmm kitten?” she patted the leonin on the head, then turned away.
Looking down at the old lutrani, who had propped himself up to sit against the rocky wall of the tunnel, panting softly, Tessa frowned. “You, and you,” she gestured quickly to two of the workers looking on. “Get him back to quarters, get him food and water, let him rest. And you,” she glared at Ironblack. “Be smarter about the work your men assign. I've no use for a dead slave. Heavy work for the strong ones, lighterwork for the weaker ones, and I don’t give a damn if that means some of your scum have to get down here and dig themselves. I want to see emeralds, not you lot lazing around on your arses playing dice. If there's any casualties because of idiocy like this again, your men will do the work in their place, clear?”
Ironblack nodded silently.
“And as for you,” Tessa crossed over to Balthor, the lupari still held in the double grasp of two of the slavers, taking hold of the front of the iron collar around his neck, pulling it downwards until their noses touched. “I really don’t appreciate you attacking my men. I really should make an example of you, but...” she paused. “Five lashes. I’d make it more, if I didn’t understand your reasons.”
“Thor?” the voice was soft in the darkness. “Thor?”
“Yes, Cassy?” the lupari’s voice was taught, and with good reason. Balthor had been laid in the darkest, quietest corner of the slave quarters, and Cassanya could barely see him in the dimness, but the leonin knew he had been painfully cut by the whip. The monk had left a jar of salve next to his bed, along with an instruction to apply it every six hours.
“That was a stupid thing to do, you know,” Cassanya went on softly.
The lupari grunted.
“I’d have been all right. That little,” the leonin added a word that made Balthor’s eyebrows rise, “just wanted to show off. He’s too scared of that creepy woman to go too far against me.”
Balthor grunted again. “Didn’t look like it at the time.”
“Thor, you feather-brained idiot.” She knelt down next to him. Closer now, she could make out the criss-cross of cut marks across his back. “It was a dumb thing to do,” she sighed. “Do you want to try this?” she gestured at the jar of ointment.
He paused for a moment, as if considering how much more it was going to hurt. “Ok.”
Nodding, she lifted the jar, smearing some of the salve on her fingertips, wrinkling her nose at the bitter odour. “Ready?”
As gently as she could, the leonin began to apply the salve to the cuts across his back. Balthor gasped, his breath catching in his throat. It did hurt. A lot. But he gritted his teeth, biting hard on a corner of his mattress, and tried to stay silent. He didn’t want Cassanya to know how much pain she was causing him.
Cassanya knew anyway, and winced in sympathy as he grunted again. “Sorry, Thor, but it’s for the best,” she said softly. She laid her left hand gently on the top of his head and stroked his fur gently, hoping the soothing motion would distract him a little. Whether it did or no, she wasn’t sure, but after a few minutes she had covered his cuts as best she could in the dimness.
Hearing her put the top back on the jar, Balthor sighed shakily.
“Does it still hurt?” Cassanya asked him.
“Not quite so bad now.”
“I’m glad.” She went back to stroking the top of his head, trying to wipe the remnants of the salve off her other hand with a rag. “Thor, will you promise me something?”
“Depends what it is.”
“Let me take punishments Iearn.”
“You didn’t earn that, you just tried to protect an old man.”
“I don't think they'd dare do as bad to me. You’re lucky they didn’t have you killed.I’mlucky they didn’t have you killed!” She sounded genuinely concerned, Balthor thought.
“They won’t waste a worker,” he said simply.
“Just try to take better care of yourself, OK?”
The lupari chuckled. “No arguments there.”
“Good. One more thing, Thor?”
“Go to sleep.”
It took some time, but eventually he did sleep, Cassanya still by his side, watching over him, staring into the dimness of the slave quarters, and worrying. She was afraid Balthor might have just made himself a popular target for the attentions of the guards, and in his present condition, she wasn’t sure if he’d be able to take it.
Six days later, Cassanya had forgotten her worry about Balthor. Instead, she was lying in the slave quarters, curled up miserably as he patted her shoulder gently.
The lupari wished desperately that he had something he could say, but what? What could he say that would dry her tears? What could he say that would bring Feral back from the dead?