Hawk’s day is still not improving. On the plus side, Sidony!
IT WAS A cold, unpleasant day, overcast and dreary with the promise of rain. The forest was dark and silent, and down in the dell the mood was watchful. The leader of the slavers had been busy all morning, moving amongst his men, sending small parties out into the trees.
It made Hawk feel cautiously hopeful. If their captors were unsettled there had to be a reason for it. He only hoped it was something that might help him and his own.
Two slavers moved amongst the guardsmen, carrying water and a basic healer’s kit to deal with the worst of the wounds. They handled the unconscious guards with brisk efficiency, but were much more careful with the awake ones. Their ministrations were greeted with suspicion, their drinks accept in sullen silence. All except Ren, who refused to take anything from their hands.
Hawk frowned. He knew how his squad leader was feeling, but he also knew better than to refuse what was on offer. Ren’s arrow wound needed attention and water was too precious not to be taken. Even if it did prick Hawk’s pride to have someone else hold the bottle for him.
As the day slid into afternoon and the shadows began to lengthen, the search parties returned empty-handed. They hung their heads before their unimpressed leader and muttered darkly, shooting Hawk and Sidony accusing glances.
Apparently not everything was going the strangers’ way.
Wichaka? each of the returning parties was asked, and all answered with an angry shake of their heads. Across the dell, Ren smiled.
Sidony wriggled against Hawk, trying to get comfortable, and he almost smiled himself. “Where was Irissa when you were caught?” he asked, barely moving his lips.
“She went to look around,” Sidony replied, equally quietly.
“She wasn’t killed or captured?”
Sidony shook her head. “Not that I saw. They snatched me up by the horses, but Irissa was nowhere to be seen.”
Because she was hiding, Hawk wondered, or just lucky? Perhaps the witch had bolted, but as he looked across the dell and caught the gleam of anticipation in Ren’s eye, he doubted it. Perhaps there was hope yet.
The head kidnapper growled and stormed across the dell beneath a dark fir tree. There was a brief argument before he emerged with the bent-backed figure of an old man.
They glared at each other for a long moment, then approached the young mages. Not trusting either of them, Hawk tried to shield Sidony with his body. A difficult task when his legs were half-numb and his arms were tied. It was made even trickier by the fact that Sidony was trying to shield him.
Scuttling closer, the old man wheezed at their shuffling movements. “Scared, little mages?” he asked in a breathlessly high voice, his accent different to the rest of the kidnappers. “You should be.”
“Enough,” the leader growled. “Just look them over.”
The old man hunched a shoulder and shot the man a look of resentment. “You needn’t drag me out here to look at them. I could have told you everything from back there.”
Although once a tall man his back was bent with age, the joints in his hands swollen and gnarled. Yet he seemed to have no problem kneeling down and grabbing Hawk’s ankle.
Sidony shrieked in outrage and tried to kick him, but Hawk silenced her with a look. The ringing sound of metal being freed from a sheath also helped, as the head kidnapper drew a long knife from his belt.
“Patience, little viper,” he crooned. “Your turn is coming.”
Hawk clenched his teeth and tried not to cry out as cold, heavy magic crept through his leg. It felt unpleasantly oily, as though staining his own magic with a taint that might never wash out.
Unable to bear it, Hawk’s magic flashed gold, shooting across his skin to zap the old man.
He recoiled with a hiss. “Keep back!” he screamed. “Don’t let him touch you!”
The leader eyed Hawk with interest. “An assassin?” he asked, intrigued.
Cradling his throbbing hand, the old man snorted. “A healer. Or so they call themselves. Murderous leeches.”
The interest faded fast. “What of her?” the kidnapper wanted to know, nodding at Sidony. “What surprises does she hold?”
Recalling the earlier kicks, the old man was reluctant to get closer until the leader placed a knife at Sidony’s throat. Then he smiled, revealing a few rotten stumps in pale, loose gums. His faded blue eyes glinted as he snagged Sidony’s ankle.
“Hm.” He shifted his grip and tightened his fingers, closing his eyes. “Tricky.”
Hawk glanced at Sidony – her eyes were screwed up tight, her mouth pulled in a mulish line – and he almost smiled. Sidony would not give up her secrets easily.
“New.” A pale tongue darted over cracked lips. “So very new.” The faded blue eyes opened again with a greedy gleam. “Barely awoken.”
The leader shifted the knife away from Sidony’s neck and the old man had to let go or risk a kicking. He did so with as much reluctance as before he’d touched her.
“What use is she?”
The old man wheezed, licking his lips again. “Her magic is pure. It can be moulded any way you like.” His knotted hands rubbed together in excitement. “We should keep her.”
“No.” The leader crouched to cover up Hawk’s hands. “We have enough trouble already.”
“But the girl -” the old man whined.
“No.” A flat answer, backed up with a dark look. “She is needed elsewhere.” Having silenced the old man’s whining, the leader stood over the children and glared. “Where are your beasts?” he demanded, surprising them both.
Hawk and Sidony shared a look, but neither said anything. Hawk could feel Cyrus lurking close by, even if he couldn’t see him amongst the branches. Young mage-beasts couldn’t go far from their mages, but birds had a little more freedom than most. As for Cricket, he assumed he was hidden in Sidony’s clothes. He usually was.
Faced with two equally blank-stares, their captor growled and turned on the old man.
“Where is the other one?” he asked, keeping his voice low and using Wrystani so that his own men wouldn’t understand. “Why can’t my men find her?”
The bent-backed figure shuffled to his feet and sneered. “She is a witch. The earth holds her close. You will not find her, no matter how hard you seek.”
The leader grabbed him by the throat. “Then you find her, old man.”
A crabbed hand seized the younger man’s wrist, cracked lips hissing a short word.
The leader let go with a sharp curse. “No tricks,” he snarled.
“No touching,” his opponent snapped back. “I am old, eh, but I am not feeble. You remember this. You remember and leave me be.”
The leader rested his hand on the knife at his belt. “You are old, but you are useful,” he said softly. “Remember that. As soon as you are not, I will kill you. No tricks will save you then.”
Huddling his gangly, knobbly limbs close to his wizened body, the old man whined, “I am old. Death watches over me already. His hand touches my shoulder. Leave me be.”
“Death would not waste his time on you,” the leader replied with contempt. “Keep the witch off our backs and you will last another day.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
The old man spat on the man’s shadow and wheezed a low chuckle. “Easy task. She will not come here. Her job is done.” He eyed the two children with amusement. “Once you fell into my hands her role was ended. We live so that you might die. There is nothing for her here.” Wheezing, he scuttled back under the shelter of his fir tree.
Sidony growled, but Hawk elbowed her. “Quiet,” he warned. He mouthed the same across the dell at the outraged Ren.
Hawk wouldn’t have been surprised to find that Irissa had done just that. There was no love lost between witches and mages. Everyone knew that. However, in this case he doubted Irissa would leave Ren to suffer. Not the man she was willing to cross the country to be with. Ren certainly didn’t think so if the rage in his eyes was anything to judge by. Nor did Sidony. The little redhead was trembling at the injustice of the old man’s accusations.
“Leave it, Sid,” he muttered.
She shook her head, but kept her voice low as she growled, “They know nothing.”
Sadly, Hawk feared these strangers knew altogether too much, but it was getting dark and he had no idea what the next day would bring. Sighing, he shifted his weight and curved his body around to shelter Sidony as best he could.
“Try to get some sleep.”
She wriggled to get more comfortable, muttering threats against ignorant foreigners. When the head kidnapper emerged from another fir tree and glanced her way, she froze and the man laughed as he strode across the camp.
~ Next Chapter ~
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