Hawk’s day is not getting any better.
“I’M SORRY, MY LORD,” Ren groaned, as Hawk rolled sideways and onto his knees.
Dazed, Hawk turned his head to check that his squad leader was still alive. He was, although the arrow was deeply embedded in his shoulder. Ren groaned as hooded men pushed between them and dragged Hawk to his feet.
Hawk’s fingers twitched, the magic inside him burning to heal his guardsman, but Ren was out of reach. A rasping chuckle accompanied a hard shove in the back and Hawk was pinned face-first to a tree, his wrists seized and tied behind him. A sharp blade pressed against his neck, sliding from his nape to caress his vulnerable throat.
“Careful, little glow worm,” whispered a low voice with a strange accent. “No tricks.” Roughly woven cloth covered his hands before he could even think about using his magic to defend himself.
Hawk’s instincts screamed for him to fight, to strike out, to not be taken so easily. However, the lack of sound around him warned that fighting would not be smart. And the knife at his neck was no joke.
“They say a slice here will drop a man dead in a couple of heartbeats,” the dark voice whispered in his ear as the blade pressed harder. “Shall we try it and see?”
Hawk didn’t want to look, but a firm hand clenched in his hair and twisted his head. Danny was on his knees in the pine needles, wide-eyed with panic. The other guards lay around him, some unconscious, all of them tied. Danny’s eyes pleaded for Hawk to help him, but there were blades at each of their throats.
“Shall we?” whispered the voice. “Shall we make him bleed and count how long it takes him to die?” The sharp knife scraped along Hawk’s skin, but he locked his knees against the fear. He was a mage-page of Royas Bay, he would not cower before his enemies.
“Bring me the beast.”
Hawk flinched at the prospect of Cyrus being bundled into a sack. Go, fly, flee, he thought as hard as he could, wishing that mind-speak was possible between a mage and his mage-beast.
A shriek echoed through the woods, followed by frantic curses and the sharp flurry of wings. The man at Hawk’s back shouted something in a different language, was answered sharply, and spat what could only be a curse.
The knife dug into the skin beneath Hawk’s jaw. “Call your beast,” his kidnapper growled. “Bring it here. Now.”
Despite the danger, Hawk dared to shake his head. “I can’t.”
“Cannot?” his captor snarled. “Or will not?”
Hawk said nothing. He could call Cyrus, although he doubted the sparrowhawk would come since he was no fool, but he wouldn’t attempt it either.
“Bring me that one,” his captor ordered. Pale and terrified, Danny was dragged before them.
A merciless hand tightened in Hawk’s hair as the man at his back barked a derisive laugh. “How brave the men of Wrystan are! An army of whelps and cowards.”
The hooded swordsmen laughed with their leader, while Hawk tried to stand tall and be strong. Danny hunched a shoulder and whispered something over and over, a plea for rescue. Blue eyes begged Hawk to save him, but Hawk couldn’t even save himself.
“If you will not bring your beast to me,” the low voice rasped in Hawk’s ear. “Then I will not keep your men with you. Start counting.”
A sharp movement, a stifled cry and a shuddering body fell flat amongst the pine needles. The stranger was right. It only took a few heartbeats for Danny to die.
* * * * *
SHOVED DOWN IN the centre of the camp Hawk tested his wrists against their rough bindings and looked around. His captors had brought him only a short distance to a deep dell. There were no pines here only a circle of ancient firs, their heavy branches bowed all the way to the forest floor, creating shadow-filled havens beneath.
It was under these that the kidnappers had made camp. Hawk and his men were given no such shelter. While Hawk was placed in the middle of the dell, his men were staked in pairs around the edge of the camp. All eight were dazed and shocked. Danny’s death had hit them hard, especially Ren. The squad leader looked utterly defeated.
As the focus of all eyes Hawk didn’t allow himself to show any hint of the fear or failure he was feeling. The guilt that gnawed at him for his part in Danny’s death he pushed to one side for now. He wouldn’t give his captors the satisfaction and he wanted his men to draw strength from him. So far they’d only pretended to follow him while really obeying Ren’s orders, but everything was different now. Hawk was the reason they were here and he would do everything he could to get them out.
It was then that he noticed something was missing: Irissa and Sidony. Neither were here. Was it possible that they were still free?
Looking around the dell again he counted ten strangers, dressed in shades of green, brown and grey. The hoods of their cloaks were drawn up and they wore scarves across their faces. They could have been anyone. All Hawk had to go on was a rasping voice and a foreign accent.
Hawk had not spent the last four years idly. As a page he’d often worked in the palace, serving international guests at royal receptions. All he needed was a little time and perhaps a few more words from his sinister host to work it out. Then he had to find a way of getting free. Ten against nine were not impossible odds, and who knew where Sidony and Irissa were. They might even be planning a rescue mission.
Or not, Hawk thought dismally as another five figures traipsed out of the trees. Three carried longbows while the other two struggled with a wriggling sack.
“Let me go! Let me go!” the sack screeched.
The leader emerged from beneath the tallest fir tree and nodded to his men.
The sack was dropped with uncaring haste. The shrieking died abruptly. There was a moment of stillness as everyone waited. It started thrashing again, this time accompanied by wordless cries of frustration. The head kidnapper murmured to his men in a flowing foreign language, making them laugh.
The sack stopped moving.
“Better,” the leader murmured, crouching down and untying the rope.
Sidony emerged, tousled, pale, disorientated and on her knees. Before she could gather her senses her wrists were yanked behind her back and bound tightly, leaving her as trussed up and helpless as the rest of them.
“Quiet now, squeaking mouse,” the lead kidnapper ordered. “We may have a use for you, but we can always survive without your tongue.”
Most children would have been cowed by the threat, but Sidony only glared. “I am no mouse.”
The kidnapper laughed. “No, you are a viper. You hiss and spit, but while I stay away from your fangs you cannot poison me.”
He waved a hand and Sidony was lifted up by her shoulders and carried across the dell by a burly underling. She kicked and wriggled, but it was hard to gain force with her feet off the ground and her arms behind her back. Her captor snorted with amusement at her struggles and dumped her in the dirt beside Hawk.
Huffing, she tossed her curls away from her face. “I am not happy, Hawk.”
He smiled a small, grim smile. “Neither am I, Sid.”
She huffed again and wriggled around to rest against him, feigning a search for comfort when she was actually trying to reach his wrists. “What are you going to do about it?”
He linked a finger around one of hers, silently warning her to stop while they had watchers at their backs. “I’m thinking.”
Shifting her weight off her knees, she slumped against him and sighed. “Think quickly. I don’t think they have happy plans for us.”
A bent-backed figure scuttled out from beneath a fir to prod the nearest unconscious guardsman. It muttered unintelligibly for a moment before scurrying away.
No, happy plans were not in their future. Not until Hawk found a way of getting them loose. He recognised the language now, even if he didn’t understand it. These men were from Callisun, a vassal state of Neystan, home to the biggest slave market in the world.
They were now property of the Empire.
~ Next Chapter ~
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