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Things just keep getting worse.
The Old Witch
A HARD SHOVE on the shoulder woke Hawk the next morning. It broke through his restless dreams and brought him back to his nightmare.
The camp was busy with activity as the Callisuni men finished their breakfast and packed up their gear. Trying without much success to stretch out his aches and pains, Hawk took a quick glance at his guardsmen. They looked as cold, stiff and uncomfortable as he felt.
“Are we done waiting yet?” a disgruntled voice muttered by his shoulder.
Hawk looked down into Sidony’s dark green eyes and shook his head. “Not yet.”
“What are you waiting for?” she huffed. “A miracle?”
A flash of orange caught Hawk’s eye. “That would be nice.”
“No talk. Up. Go.”
Rough hands dragged them to their feet, barely pausing to allow them a swallow of water and a bite of stale bread each before they were moving off through the forest. There was no breath for talking after that.
* * *
THEY TRUDGED ON without rest through the morning. It was hard for Hawk to keep up with the fast moving foreigners on stiff legs and an empty stomach, but Sidony fared worse. Smaller and a lot less used to going without, there was only so much she could take before collapsing.
She tried to fight it, though, and Hawk was amazed by how stubborn she was. Even when she stumbled and had to be supported by Ren, she still refused to give in. Thankfully, all the prisoners were being herded together, so when Ren grew tired of bracing her up there was always another guardsman to pass her along to. If their captors saw the girl struggling, they showed no signs of caring.
So much for her being valuable, Hawk thought, focusing grimly on walking, determined not to fall. He was light-headed from hunger and exhaustion. Yet every so often he caught a flash of orange from the shadows and it spurred him on.
Cyrus was still out there, waiting for a chance to act. Hawk had to keep his wits together so that he would be ready. A chance had to come soon, something had to change. All he had to do was wait for it.
* * *
Hawk and Sidony had been dumped in the middle of the camp again, with the guardsmen staked in pairs around the edge. They were in a clearing created by a couple of fallen pines and filled with bracken and prickly thorns. It was even more difficult to get comfortable here than it had been in the dell. Sidony kept wriggling and Hawk wondered what Cricket was up to.
He looked down and caught a twitch of a whisker from the edge of Sidony’s sleeve. “Be careful,” he murmured.
Sidony winked at him.
“I asked you a question, witch. Have you seen anything?”
The head kidnapper and the old man were arguing again. They did it a lot. By using the Wrystani tongue, they managed to avoid informing the majority of their men just what it was they were disagreeing over. If it meant they told their captives instead, clearly they didn’t care. It wouldn’t do them any good anyway.
Hawk raised his eyebrows at Sidony and she tightened her lips with a nod, promising to keep quiet. It was their only way of learning what was going on.
The old man, who looked unfairly lively after such a walk, shrugged. “Nothing. There is nothing. I told you there would be nothing and nothing is what you have.”
The leader stepped in close, using his height to intimidate the wizened figure. “If you are lying to me…”
The old man waved his hands. “Bah. I told you. Her job is done. We have the little mages. She will go home now.”
Even though he looked unconvinced, the leader sniffed. “Good. Then we can move forward. He will be hungry. He needs feeding.”
“He is always hungry,” the old man grumbled. “That is why he is called the Hungry One.”
The head kidnapper narrowed his eyes. “Do not try to be clever with me, witch. You have never been clever, and you never will be.”
The old man sneered. “Clever is as clever does.” They glared at each other until the old man dropped his eyes. “He hungers. I can feel it,” he admitted with a touch of fear.
“Then we should feed him.” There was a hint of triumph in the slaver’s voice as he issued orders to his men. Then he turned to Sidony and Hawk. “Come, little mages, there is someone wanting to meet you.” He dragged them both to their feet, the old man scuttling beside them as four men stood up to follow.
“Where are you taking them?” Ren demanded, struggling to stand, despite being staked to the ground. “Where are you going?”
The head kidnapper waved the old man and his men along. “Take them to the Hungry One. I will deal with this.”
“Stop!” Ren shouted, even as Hawk and Sidony were shoved forward and forced to walk. “You can’t do this!”
The leader strode across the clearing and shoved Ren back, knocking him to the ground. “As I am not the one tied up, I think I can.”
Hawk looked over his shoulder as he was hustled away. Although it was dark beneath the pines he could still see the clearing as Ren gave a bleak smile and shouted, “Now!”
As one the chained pairs pushed to their feet, yanking up their stakes. Using the element of surprise, Ren rammed his head into the leader’s stomach and chaos exploded through the camp.
Sidony and Hawk began to struggle, while their captors debated whether to return and help or continue on their way.
“Pick them up, pick them up,” the old man ordered, dancing away as Sidony started kicking the nearest shins, while Hawk dodged and rammed his head and shoulders wherever he could.
“Pick them up!” the old man shouted, and though he spoke in Wrystani the force of his voice was enough to get through. “He hungers. If you lose them, you will feed him.”
A solid punch to the side of his head knocked Hawk off balance and before he knew it he was face down over a shoulder, a squirming, shrieking Sidony suffering the same ignoble fate.
“No!” Sidony screamed as they were carted away, their burly kidnappers breaking into a jog. “No. Ren. Ren!”
Hawk twisted his head to see the clearing. The fight was over. It had been doomed from the start, but it had still ended faster than he’d expected.
The reason was slumped against the head slaver, his eyes dulled, a line of blood trickling from his mouth. With a push of his shoulders, the Callisuni shrugged Ren’s body to the ground and casually cleaned his dagger on the dead man’s shirt.
After that neither Hawk nor Sidony had the strength to fight and lay like sacks over their captors’ shoulders, travelling deeper into the forest, beyond all hope of aid.
* * *
THE AFTERNOON WAS growing late by the time they stopped. Another dell, this one shaded by an enormous oak on one side, while a scraggy, twisted rowan guarded the other.
“Drop them,” the old man ordered, and the men did.
Hawk barely had the strength to groan as he gathered fresh bruises on his bruises. His magic went instantly to work on his agonised shoulders, but he still wasn’t sure they would ever be the same again.
Sidony landed beside him with a similar lack of care, except her hands were free. Cricket must have gnawed through the ropes and Hawk wished he’d let the little mouse do the same for him.
Whimpering with pain and grief, Sidony crawled over to Hawk and cuddled against him, acting her age for the first time. Except the hand that slipped around his waist contained a small, clever-toothed mouse and before long Hawk was free too.
“Thanks, Cricket,” he murmured, biting back a groan as his magic washed across his shoulders and down through the muscles of his tortured arms.
“He killed him,” she sobbed, pressing against Hawk’s chest until he recovered enough to hug her. “He’ll kill them all.”
Hot tears stung his own eyes, but he refused to cry. Not here. Not when they were still in danger. Instead he pulled off the cloth covering his hands and touched bare fingers to the edge of her jaw. Gold light shimmered and vanished into her skin.
She snuffled. “I don’t want to die, Hawk.”
Nor did he, but he couldn’t find the words to comfort her. Instead he let his magic go to work, even though he was hungry, heart-sore and tired. There wasn’t much left in him, but it was enough to take away the pain of being jolted all afternoon on an unforgiving shoulder. The grief he could do nothing for, even if he had all the magic in the world.
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