About this chapter
For a few days, the Verdani forces remained in the shadow of the mountain, assessing the damage and searching the pass for any remaining Telicor soldiers. There was much too sure up before they went anywhere, as their side did not come to victory without losses of their own. The injured were given treatment until it was safe for them to be moved, at which point Matron Najaharis decided it was time to make good on their promise to the captured soldiers. Three lucky fellows were selected from among the defeated, their packs loaded with rations, water, and the scrolls to be delivered to the border. They were given an escort to the pass and permitted to leave on the promise that they would never harry Verdant again. Their names had been marked, and the punishment for returning was implied to be lethal. They needed only to look at the corpsefield between the camp and the mountain as proof.
Khonrad watched as strange creatures descended to feed off the remains. Not the vultures he had been expecting, but winged beasts with raptor heads and svelte, feline bodies. They skirmished with spotted jackals over what they could gain before the dead were piled up to be burned. The Verdant bodies were shrouded gently, packed into the back of a cart loaded with hay and herbs to be escorted to the nearest city ahead of them. Alongside the bodies were a group of men and women dressed in orange with red sashes against their chest, ensuring that the deceased were being properly stored for the trip. They spoke at length with the women in the blue robes before leaving, leading Khonrad to believe that they must be associated with one another, if not in the same order.
He had witnessed the dull procession of defeat many times, but always from the side of the victorious. There was a bleak yet uniform method to the proceeding, an understanding between enemies of what came next. Telicor was not a generous place in which to lose honorably. In fact, it would be argumentative as to whether or not such a feat was even possible. The winners took their trophies in slaves, loot, and notoriety while the Barony they served undertook the land and added another symbol to their family crest. Those who were not blessed by Ahror ended their lives in a pool of blood or watched any surviving friends sold off on the auction block. It was a familiar sight, enough so that by the time Khonrad had entered his twenty-fifth year he no longer cringed at the prospect of it.
But that had been when he was the one taking loot and slaves.
They kept him separate from the rest of the soldiers, marching the lot of them in a wide line, arms bound and flanked by Verdant women who had little patience for any sort of incidents. Someone had translated to the captives where they were being taken; the spires he had spotted off in the distance marking the Verdani city of the Speckled Oasis. Upon arrival their number would be turned over to the House of Thralls and their sentence would begin. Until such point, they were instructed to conduct themselves with civility and they would be treated civilly with food, water, and shelter. Any attempts to incite an incident would be dealt with harshly. Khonrad could not imagine what would be harsher than the trek they were already on. He was not the only one unaccustomed to such cloudless skies and dry, caustic heat. The shoes they wore had not been made for the dense, clinging sand under their feet, and the going was slow at best. Even their clothing was hampering, having been thickly knitted for the rainy, coniferous environment they hailed from. Layer by layer the woolen tabards and dressings were being discarded, which of course lead to the problem of their skin being exposed to the sun without protection. By the end of the day Khonrad’s shoulders were red and hot, covered in freckles he did not know he had until now. The next morning, he was peeling miserably, his face scrunching up in disgust as he removed a crusted bit of dried skin from himself before being moved back into the marching order.
The slough halted at dusk, filing everyone into the camp to get them fed and watered. The food was plentiful, he could say that of them at the least. The rice was a vivid yellow with gobs of vegetables on top and a large piece of flatbread that served both as a plate and a part of the meal. He quickly realized the best thing to do was simply roll everything up into one and eat it that way, though he was not quite sure how he felt about the strange taste of it. There was a pungent aroma that Khonrad could neither identify as pleasant or stinking. Little chopped bits of red and white were in the vegetables, and they burned on his tongue with a citric intensity. He could not fairly say it was bad, merely unfamiliar, though some of the others from his side were not able to stomach it. When the meal was over, they separated him away from the rest once more, putting him in a pen with one or two rabble-rousers who had caused a disturbance earlier. Khonrad recognized them in a general sort of way, but their names escaped him.
The first night they were alone together, the two tried to convince him that if they could just get free of their guards they could release the other soldiers and make a run for the pass.
“That is a bold plan. Now let me tell you what will likely happen.” He explained smoothly, knowing full well the sentence for escaping prisoners could not be so different in Verdant than it was back home. “Assuming we kill the guards, assuming we make it across the encampment before anybody notices we are gone, assuming we can free dozens of our fellows quietly, we still have to make it back to the pass. That means going back through the desert with minimal supplies, probably no weapons, and a military force hunting us down.” Khonrad reasoned with them, brushing back his dark red hair and rubbing a hand over his sweaty face. He would never get used to being wet constantly. “We would then have to make it across the pass, with snow and wolves and no winter supplies or tents to get us through.”
“You are talking like a coward.” One of them, a younger fellow with a bad scar on his shoulder and two missing fingers spat at his feet, trying to rile him up.
“Do not bait me, boy. I am in no mood for it.” He warned the brazen youth, eyeing him over the bridge of his nose with a stern expression. He pointed up towards the mountains, each day knowing they were taking further away from them. “Home is that way. If you want to run for it I won’t stop you. But you ought to have an understanding of what you’re risking before you endanger the lives of our men fruitlessly.”
“Our men.” The other one said, laughing dryly. “You talk as if you still have a rank to lean on. You’re just another slave like the rest of us. Or thrall. Or whatever it is these snarling hags call their captives.” He paced the pen nervously, looking around as if he did not know what to do with himself. Everyone was tense. They did not know much about where they were heading, only that what they had been told of these women was thus far proving untrue. That was worse. You could deal with terrible things if you knew they were headed your way. But now knowing anything at all meant you had no means by which to steel your resolve.
Khonrad said nothing. They were not wrong. They were also very afraid. Most of these men did not have the luxury in any sense of the word. They joined the forces in order to have the security of food, drink, and fairly steady pay. The vast majority of them did not know how to read or write, so he could only assume that someone had penned their plea letters for them. It did not bode well for the likelihood of their enthrallment being paid off in any capacity. Khonrad knew his household would struggle with the financial burden for years, but at least he could pay, in theory. How could he hold it against these men when they knew well that a desperate bid for escape was their only chance at freedom?
“I will tell you this, I will not spend the rest of my life serving some broad-faced wretch. We escape tonight. We’ll go on our own if we have to.” He lowered his voice into a whisper, looking around the guards to see if they could hear or even understand him. “It’ll be easier with just us. I saw them put up the supply tent when we stopped for the night.” The man nudged Khonrad roughly, gesturing to him to see if he was going to try and escape with them.
Before Khonrad could answer, the pen was approached by three women, the group of them looking at him and the two soldiers over with interest and chatting to one another in Verdani. They were pointing at him, then one of them said something in a disparaging tone and the other two laughed. She spoke to the guard briefly, who shrugged as if to say it didn’t matter to her in the least, before coming around the side of the pen to the fellow with a scar on his shoulder. “Aoha, you are a fighter, right?” she asked in a thickly accented voice, cocking her head to show off dark hazel eyes and a wide, brightly charming grin. She looked young, maybe no more than twenty summers give or take, and mannerisms had a kind of self-assured posturing that Khonrad was all too familiar with.
The fellow looked to Khonrad and his friend before answering. “I am.”
“Can you fight?” She asked, pointing to his shoulder. “Is your injury bad?”
He drew himself up, muscles flexing as he crossed his arms and sniffed indignantly. “I can fight well enough to teach you a lesson, dogswife.”
The three of them laughed rancorously, shoving one another around as if they had just heard a hilarious joke. Khonrad got the sensation this was exactly the kind of answer they had been looking for. She came around to the entry, explaining something to the guard who only looked at her shoulder at the lot of them and shook her head, muttering under her breath. She opened the gate and gestured for the selected man to come towards her. The younger woman held out a hand to him. “Jahari.”
“Tescut.” She repeated. “If you win, I’ll bring you beer and meat till we reach Speckled Oasis.”
“Win? Win what?” He asked, unsure of what he was being roped into and reluctant to step outside the pen despite his earlier proclamation of wanting to escape.
“Fighting,” Jarhari told him as if it should be obvious by now. “Telicor men like to fight, yes? Come on then. Boxing. Your people box? Yes?”
His eyes widened and he looked back at his friend. “Yes. No! Not…you do not box women.”
“But you can stick a blade into them?” She gave him a shove, pushing him away from her. “If you won’t, I am sure one of these others would like red meat and thick beer.” Jahari gestured to the other two in the pen as one of her friends said something to her quickly, looking around.
Ah. So they weren’t supposed to be here. Khonrad shook his head. He didn’t want to know what happened to prisoners who let themselves get wrangled into the mischief of the lower ranks. “Don’t,” he muttered in Telicor to the other man, who took his advice and a step back. Khonrad had been through the rank and file in his early years, and he was well done with being that person who drew attention to himself. Troublemakers were marked early on, and the last thing he wanted was someone keeping eyes on him. Fighting in the context of a battle was one thing, but stepping into the ring with the intention of knocking a woman out was something else entirely. Khonrad knew some men struck their wives in coarseness, but it turned his stomach to think of bare-knuckle brawls against someone who was, to his eyes, barely more than a girl.
Clearly, Verdani women were of a different opinion in this matter. “Tch. Disappointing.” Jahari looked back over at her mark and grinned again, her dimples showing off to a pretty effect. “Well? Come and box. We want to see what you can do.”
“What happens if I lose?” Tescut asked.
“Then you lose.”
“I mean what do I have to give you?”
She snorted, gesturing up and down at the mess of a man. “You don’t have anything I want. And you have nothing to lose.” Jahari licked her lips, thinking it over for a moment before she shouted back to her friend, who nodded in agreement. “See her? She bet against me. If you knock me down, she’ll give you some of her winnings.”
Tescut weighed his options, but in the end, his pride won out. He was a brawny-looking fellow, and though one could easily see the muscles of a trained fighter on her, Jahari was smaller. “Meat, beer, and gold?”
“If you win.”
He hesitated to walk past the guards, but they were pointedly looking off in another direction. Jahari walked along with him, her friends guarding his back to make sure he did not try to run off as they vanished amid the tents. Khonrad could see a fire going strong a few rows down from them, and in a minute or two a staunch cheer carried up from the area. He could only assume the crowd was eager for the match. “Strange women they have here,” he muttered to himself unsure of what the end result would be.
“Strange is just the green of the carrot.” The other soldier was a curly-haired man with round cheeks, smaller than his companion but his hands showed he had likely been raised doing labor. “What kind of women are these? Are they really women at all? Look at them. That one there is the size of a bear!” He said, pointing to a woman in Verdani blues who, to be fair, looked like she could win a fight with a brick wall.
“Maybe a small bear.” He admitted. These women did not seem that much bigger than the ones back home, more muscular to be sure, but not really bigger overall.
“And that? Those horned monsters…”
“Minotaurs.” Khonrad corrected as he watched a few of them pass by, absorbed in their own business.
“I do not care what they are. These-these… syrikah would not have won if it wasn’t for them.” He asserted, glancing over to the fuss where his friend had been taken. He sat down in the dirt, rubbing his hands over his scalp in a worried expression. “This is not what it was supposed to be. They told us it was bandits, wild women. Where are the wild women, commander?”
“What is your name?” Khonrad asked, leveling out his tone to the one he used when he could sense the nerves of his men failing them.
He hesitated to answer, perhaps unsure if he was about to get into trouble. “…Lancor.”
“Have you seen any of your friends since you were captured, Lancor?” He tried to steer the young man away from despair and into conversation while they waited for whatever would next befall them.
“Just Tescut. He, we were trained together in the Longhr Barony, before the assault. When we knew it was done for we stole the insignia off two Dorrest dead and snuck back into the ranks with them.” Lancor chuckled darkly, rubbing his shoulders and digging at the ground with his heels like a dejected child. “A fat lot of good it did us.”
“You are alive. That is always a better alternative.” The former commander held his breath, listening to the foreign sounds of the desert around them, the far-off shrill yips reminding him of the pine wolves that he knew from the forest near his home. “You survived that. You must remain convinced that the two of you will survive this.” Khonrad did not know if he believed his own words. The mire of doubt and worry was turning his stomach, or maybe it was the spices from the meal. But he had to say something to keep from twisting himself into despair and allowing others to admit utter defeat. The crowd where Tescut had been taken was in the thick of it, yelling and carrying on as the fight swung either way. “We are Telicor men. We live, we fight, we fuck, we die. You are not fucking or dying, so you must not be done living and fighting yet.”
Lancor tucked his head into his chest, laughing in a raspy tone before looking up to him. “I would much rather be fucking right now. Or fighting. At least I know what I’m doing in that respect.”
“Perhaps you will get the chance again. But I advise you not to attempt an escape. I do not think you will pass for Verdant soldiers no matter how convincing the tabard.” He gestured to Lancor’s upper lip. “Your mustache is a dead giveaway.” It was little comfort, yet enough to bring a smile to the younger man’s face and a sense of relief to Khonrad’s heart. He had always been good enough at this part of the work. Being a commander often meant balancing oneself between the crude backhand to a fool and the bracing words that sent fighters into the fray. His own first commander had been the latter, and Gertie had often told him that she could still see the marks from where he had been struck by a gauntleted fist during training. He had no compunctions about setting someone’s nose out of joint if it came to it, but a brittle, temperamental officer did not engender the loyalty of their troops. Khonrad had always sought to avoid such ends.
“How do you think Tescut is fairing?” The fellow asked, eager to get off of the depressing conversation.
“Difficult to say. I don’t speak Verdani and even if I could I can’t discern what they are yelling from here.”
“Are they all like this, do you think? These Verdant women?”
“I see nothing to indicate otherwise.” He told Lancor as he watched a few more of the soldiers pass by. “Did you see the ones in the blue robes at the infirmary?”
“Priestesses. Or so I gather.” He made a waving, curling motion with his hands. “They do witchcraft. I saw it with my own eyes. They tried to make me drink a potion they mixed. When I refused they had a guard hold me down and forced a funnel into my mouth. I keep expecting to turn into a hare or sprout eyes on my cock.”
“That would be disturbing.” He agreed, trying to picture it. “I am not sure if they are syrikah. It would be very odd to have witches tending to the ill and binding their injuries, wouldn’t it?”
“Who better? I watched.” The curly-haired fellow insisted. “They took knives and cut open a man’s chest as he lies in a stupor. One of the blue-robed witches used a spell and cast a blue light into his brain. They dug around in the blood until they pulled out a jagged metal spike, then sewed him closed with needles and smeared a foul-smelling goop on the wound. You can’t tell me that isn’t witchcraft.”
“…how many battles have you been in, Lancor?” Khonrad asked, arching a thick eyebrow at him with bemused interest.
“Longhr and this.”
“And you’ve never been in a surgeon’s tent before, have you?” He chuckled a little, one of the worries in the back of his mind finally being put at ease. He was not sure what to make of this blue magic he had seen, but he knew well enough what post-battle surgery looked like. By the sound of it that was exactly what had been happening. “Did the soldier live?”
Lancor nodded sheepishly. “Yes. He was out cold for two days but he lived. I was next to his bed.”
“He must have gotten shrapnel in his chest. A broken blade, an arrowhead, or something. They removed it, stitched him up. They’re surgeons. If he lived they must be talented ones. A wound like that can kill a man, and even if it doesn’t the surgeons are likely to bleed him to death trying to remove it.” He had seen it often enough to know he would rather die quickly by a sword thrust than undergo the blood and pus of the sawman’s craft. Head injuries could be the end of a man’s career, even if they did survive it. Often times there were brain fevers and a loss of wits that came with it. Only time would tell of these so-called priestesses has surmounted such a fate.
“Do women do everything here?” Lancor threw up his arms, bewildered by it all. “I haven’t seen a handful or more of men since we arrived! Where do they keep them all? Are all their men enslaved? Enthralled like this, like we are? Do they kill them? How are you so untroubled by this? How do you stand there calm and composed?”
“If I start shrieking about it like a hysterical maiden will it change anything?” Khonrad snipped back, growing a bit irritated. “If they were going to kill us they would have done it. They had no trouble with such things on the battlefield. As for the rest of it, I don’t know any more than you do. I suspect we will find out soon enough. Until then, take my advice, Lancor. Keep your head down. Stay quiet and observe. The more you learn, the easier it will be to survive this.” He finished just as the sound of the crowd was interrupted by a low, bellowing noise from the area. They watched as several of the women fast walked away from the incident as if they were avoiding trouble, scurrying through the tents in a zig-zag pattern. Loud, angry orders echoed from the arena, showing that whatever was going on had apparently been unsanctioned and was now being broken up. Seemed like the Verdant military has the same trouble as every other when it came to riled up and bored warriors.
Soon enough they got their proof. Two of the soldiers returned with Tescut slung between them, sporting a mean black-eye, a broken nose, and bleeding from a busted lip. Khonrad was only half surprised to see Hardhoof following them, looking none too pleased by the boxing match. Her ears were flat back against her skull and she was snorting hard enough that it sounded like she was growling at them all. She shouted at the soldiers, one of whom he recognized as Jahari despite the split eyebrow and massive bruise on her cheek that was turning darker by the second. The minotaur pointed at the pen, then towered over the inciting woman, snarling at her in a low voice and giving her instructions from behind gritted teeth. They dumped Tescut back behind the gate and bolted with a salute to Hardhoof, trying to avoid holding her attention for any longer. The officer turned back around, giving Khonrad a long side-eye. “And I suppose you did nothing to encourage this?”
“I told him it wasn’t wise.” He admitted, feeling a bit like he was being lectured as Lancor rushed to check on his friend. “I am not a commander anymore, thanks to you and your lot. I have no authority to stop him.”
“If you don’t have the authority now then you never did!” She barked, wincing as the yell made her injury strain. “I sent Jahari to fetch a priestess for him. He should be fine. It was just a brawl…”
The man in question roused, moaning painfully and turning his head. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and spat out a tooth along with blood. “Did I win?” he asked, unsure of where he was or who he was asking.
Hardhoof blanched for a moment, cocking her head as she took in the sight of the busted-up fighter. “You didn’t lose.” She said plainly as a priestess came running to ensure he was alright. “Can’t say that you would not have lost had I not interrupted. Be glad I got there before anyone else caught on. Boxing matches are discouraged during maneuvers.”
“Then why don’t you get better control over your girls instead of lecturing me on getting a handle on a group of captives?” The pricking criticism came out of his mouth before he really thought about what it was he could be getting himself into. Despite his claims of keeping from being noticed, he was no fonder of being given orders by some bull-headed female than anyone else around he knew.
Hardhoof rounded on him, and the two guards at the gate of their pen shuffled to the side, not bothering to halt her from entering. “These women came for a battle and found a disappointing rabble of irate boys carrying on like fools.” She leaned down so their eyes would be level with one another. “Hardly enough to give them an outlet for their energy, but just enough to get them on edge them up.”
Khonrad stood his ground against her, crossing his arms, disparaging her control. “That is no excuse for a lack of discipline among the troops, Matron Hardhoof.”
“I don’t waste time blaming my fighters for being rambunctious when they are robbed of good combat. It struck me as unfair for them to be picking on a weaker soldier who spent his day boiling under the sun.” Her voice was light, conversational, and smug about it as she reminded him who was in charge here. “But so be it. Since you are frightened of Verdani women savaging your men I will post additional guards who will not permit them to be removed from their pens.” She said nothing to acknowledge the groan of Lancor and Tescut as they realized the possibility of escape was now increasingly limited, but she did glance over to the beaten one. “Be glad we are keeping you safe. If you could not handle one of our soldiers then you would stand no chance against the hyenas, or Tiamati forbid you should run into a tevica. There would be nothing left.” She stood up to her full height once more, turning on her good hoof and heading away without another word.
“Wonderful,” Lancor said as she left. “Now we can’t go at all. What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know.” He grumbled, rubbing his eye as one of the priestesses came to ensure he had not been brutally injured. She was followed by more guards who wasted no time forming around the pens to secure their prisoners. “I was tired of all this. I wanted to punch that smug grin off her face.”
“And did you?” Khonrad turned to him with a skeptical note, reminding the man that he looked much worse coming back than he had upon leaving. “No. You got your teeth punched in and your eye bloodied.”
“Don’t talk to me like that!” He shouted and pointed to where Hardhoof had left from. “I didn’t notice you standing up to her with anything more than some backtalk. You’re scared of them, that’s what it is. Well, I am not. I’m not afraid of these bitches and their bullwomen!” He shoved at the priestess trying to look him over, cursing at her not to touch him.
“You know…” One of the guards said, looking over her shoulder at them. “Not many of us speak Telicorian, but some do. Not all of us will be nice enough to you know we can understand what you are saying.” She gave them a moment to let that sink in before continuing. “I on the other hand, just want you all to shut up.”
Tescut stammered indignantly, reaching around for a rock to throw at her. “You shut up!” he snarled and Khonrad reached forward, grabbing his wrist and yanking him back before he could do something monumentally stupid.
“Enough! You’ve caused enough of a problem already. Temper yourself, soldier! That’s an order!” Khonrad barked out, determined to keep things from becoming worse than they already were. He didn’t want to overthink it, but Hardhoof was right. He was, from what he could tell, the highest-ranking Telicor officer left among these men. Someone had to get a handle on things so the younger lot didn’t get themselves killed. He yanked Tescut to haul him up and get him to drop the rock, but he was not ready for the return punch that came in his direction. It caught him in the jaw, and he heard a yelled curse come from behind it.
“You aren’t an officer anymore! You don’t get to give me orders!”
Khonrad did not wait for another blow. He put a foot down behind him, steadied his stance, and hauled back, dragging Tescut forwards him from his grip on the wrist. He swung his other arm forward, landing into the core under his chest with a solid wholumph! The younger man collapsed, sucking in the air with a raspy, struggling gasp as he went down onto his knees. The priestess yelled at the both of them angrily, shoving at him to back up so she could do her work. He couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but the glowing blue fingers in his face was a clear indicator that he was about to get much more than a hit if he kept going. Khonrad released Tescut and backed away, breathing heavily and pulling himself back under control as the blue-robed woman knelt down and began to assess the damage he and Jahari had left behind. Khonrad closed his eyes, working to steady himself back into a position of self-control. He could not tell others to mind themselves if he lost his temper at the first sign of disrespect. It was disreputable at best.
He sat away from the other two for the rest of the night, watching as Tescut nursed his injuries and short resentful glares at their former commander. Khonrad ignored it to the best of his ability, but he never stopped being aware of it. Resentment could so easily turn into blind fury, and if Tescut could not take out his rage on the women who imprisoned him, the man who put a fist into his gut was the next best target. Thankfully the bruised-up fellow seemed more concerned with stitching together the remnants of his pride to be worried about getting into another brawl tonight. Khonrad stared off into the rows of tents, watching the movements of their captors and waiting patiently for what dawn could bring them. It did surprise him to see Jahari walking towards the pen again, a patch on her split brow and a basket in her arms, a few hours later. He could see steam rising up from the woven reeds and what looked like a tightly corked amber bottle resting against the rim. The moment she realized how many guards had been added, the young woman took a swift turn, headed away from their enclosure before she could be spotted and disappearing among the canvas.