Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 3

Posted: N/A


Kyle Aarons

Vondum hated the pace he had to ride. The pair of Orc children and the two captive human boys really slowed him down. It truly aggravated him, but what could he do? He needed the Orcs to show his town why he had been gone, and the boys, well they were strictly fringe benefits. Besides, the boys were not holding him up any more than the Orcs already were.

When he really thought it over, it wasn't all bad. If Monarch had not ordered the Orcs to give him a pair of kids, he would have had to spend an extra day or so hunting down a few Goblins or something else. The good people of Black Rapids would not be happy if their captain of the guard came back from a week long trip empty handed. He dearly hoped he would make it back within the one-week time frame, but now he doubted it. Especially since his new orders kept him from heading straight back.

With any luck, a few of his trusted men had come up with a few kills as well by now. Add that to the Orcs and the town would be satisfied he was indeed doing his job. An extra few days or even a week or two would be brushed off. If his men had not been successful, two Orc children may not be enough. Briefly he picked up the pace, only to find the kids couldn't do it. One by one they stumbled, fell, and had to be dragged. He wanted all four undamaged as possible so he again slowed.

Two hours after departing the Orc camp, he spotted a frozen natural spring. Crystal clear ice shining in the three quarter moonlight told him the water was fresh under the frozen upheaval. He stopped. None of the kids would last much longer. They needed food, water, and rest. Vondum looked around before sliding off his mount. His Outdoorsman training told him something wasn't right. Try as he might, he could not detect the source of the problem though. If he was being watched, it was by something or someone quite good. This only made him more edgy.

Another few seconds of searching and finding nothing convinced him his prisoners would just have to do without sleep. Something was making his hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He was sure they were not alone, but a break was required. There was nothing he could do about it. Pushing them any further would lead to a serious injury or worse. Besides, his mount needed a breather as well. The weight of his body in armor, saddle, saddlebags, traveling gear, plus having to pull four children took its toll.

He patted his mount before detaching the ropes and chains from the metal loops he had added to his saddle for this very purpose. He glared at the Orcs while speaking in their language. "Sit and do not move until told!"

The Orc boy and girl both sat down instantly. They were exhausted and it showed.

If anything the humans were in worse shape. The gags prevented them from breathing in through their mouths so they were not getting enough air. They both had already collapsed to the ground by the time Vondum turned his attention toward them. He shook his head annoyed with himself for not thinking about their breathing sooner.

Vondum drew his dagger and moved toward the smaller boy. Too tired to stand, the boy just looked up shaking from head to toe with fear.

Vondum loved the look of fear, but need overrode pleasure for the moment. He required the humans to get their breath back and be able to go a while longer as soon as possible. With a practiced swipe, he cut the gag without so much as scratching the boy wearing it. With his other hand he pulled out the wad of cloth, identifying it as a shirtsleeve of what had once been a very nice tan dyed shirt. Silently he wondered what had happened to the owner. Only the wealthy wore dyed clothing.

Wordlessly he turned to the taller boy and duplicated the procedure. "Any yelling for help, screaming, or even talking and I'll brand your tongues with a hot poker. You will speak only when spoken to. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir." the smaller boy managed to gasp out.

The taller one only nodded and started coughing.

"Good, stay put." Vondum growled as he went over to his steed grabbing a pair of water skins. "I will only be gone a few moments, so you best not try anything stupid."

Using the back of his dagger, Vondum broke off the ice stalagmite. Just as he expected, fresh water shot up almost a meter high, falling back onto the frozen swamp floor freezing almost instantly, slowly forming a new see-through encasement for the cold night. For many this would be a beautiful sight, but for him it was nothing more than an inconvenience. He filled both water skins then moved his mount over so it too could taste its thirst killing coolness and receive some refreshment. The animal eagerly lapped at the water, showing its own need for rest.

Vondum shook his head. Things were not looking good at all. He had to find shelter for sleep or no one, including himself, would make it much further. The last thing he wanted was to end up on foot because his mount couldn't carry him any further.

After a few seconds thought, he walked up to the smaller human, "What is your name?"

"Conth, sir." The boy whispered, while still trying to get his breath back.

"Well, Conth, it is up to you to feed and water the others, unless you to want a wooden cross brace for your arms as well."

"No, sir. I will do what you want."

"I thought you were a smart one." Vondum nodded while tossing the water skins in front of him. "We will rest for one hour. You may grab up your chains and go back to the fountain, over to the Orcs and back to here. Anywhere else and you will be severely punished. Am I making myself clear?"

"Very clear, sir."

"Excellent! You will find some dry rations in my left side saddlebag. Get one wrapping for each of you. Do not touch anything else or my animal. Make sure you feed every bite to them before you eat. Once you finish come see me."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, and Conth?"


"I will be watching."

"I understand, sir."

Vondum made sure Conth got only the food out of the saddlebag before he slipped off into the woods. He smiled as the boy stood on tiptoes trying to reach inside the saddlebag hung high on his mount. He doubted the youngster would try anything stupid. For one thing, he was too tired, and more importantly terrified. Briefly he thought about going back to make sure he didn't untie any of the arm crosses, but after a moment dismissed the idea. Fear would prevent such a thought from even coming up. He was right.

Vondum cast a light spell deciding on a deep crimson color to prevent any damage to his night vision. As an added benefit, it would also give the children an even more ominous feeling than they already had. He placed the spell in the middle of the rest site before sliding off into the woods. The glow would give him an idea of how far from the kids and his mount he was, while hopefully distracting whatever was stalking him. He circled the resting area three times, each time going a little further out looking for any signs of something watching him. Twice he thought he heard something. A closer inspection only turned up bobcat tracks and a few fallen branches heavy with ice. Yet his honed outdoor danger sense still kept going off. The more he tried to dismiss it, the louder it got. Finally he gave up and headed back toward his glowing red gloom_. I'll just have to keep myself extra alert and prepared_, he thought to himself.

Quickly, he returned to the spring. His long absence would tempt even the most fearful captive, and something told him the Orcs weren't nearly scared enough. A slight smile crossed his face as Conth came up as soon as he came into view.

"The creatures won't eat sir." Conth said while holding up two of the meals in his left hand while carrying a third in his right hand

"Oh?" Vondum snatched the food, "What about the other meal?"

"You said for me not to eat until the others did sir." Conth answered with a gulp. "So I didn't eat mine yet." His small frame started shaking in fear.

"So I did." Vondum nodded. "You tried. I will not hold this against you. Eat. Come see me when you finish. I will deal with the Orcs."

"Yes sir." Conth backed away and sat on a stone with a water skin and the wrapped food. Try as he might, he couldn't get his hands to stop trembling. It had been easier when the man had left for a while. Each meal contained dried fruits and nuts wrapped up in a pair of thick rectangular shaped cuts of jerky meat and tied with twine. It required some work to get the twine untied, something he could not do with shaking hands. After a few minutes he gave up choosing instead to use his teeth to cut through. The last thing he wanted was to not get a meal because he had taken too long.

Each bite calmed his nerves and replenished some strength. Whoever prepared the jerky had really spiced it. It was hard to eat for a boy whose food had always been more subtle. For a few seconds he started to eat just the fruits and nuts inside, but realized he would probably have to get used to such wild food. With obvious distaste written on his face he started tearing chunks off with his teeth and swallowing the meat with as little chewing as possible.

This was Conth's first real chance to take stock of his situation. He had just gotten to sleep in his father's wagon when shouts of alarm sounded. Still groggy, he had managed little more than to pull on his britches when a huge monster burst through the side of the wagon. For a moment it looked like the beast would kill him. It had even raised a spiked club. Another, smaller, beast stopped it though. The newcomer yelled something, then cast some sort of magic that froze the beast in mid-swing. It climbed into the wagon and looked down. "Leave your sleeping clothing on and get dressed. If you refuse, I will release him to deal with you!" It pointed toward the statue like, club swinging monster.

Another of the huge beasts grabbed him the second he finished dressing. Shackles slapped down onto his wrists before he even realized what had been done. He tried to protest but his captor cupped a massive six-fingered hand over his mouth and had yet another beast secure a gag. A metal pin hammered flat on both sides kept the shackles locked and acted like a rivet eliminating any chance of the metal bands loosening. Chains were attached to the shackles and roughly nailed to the bottom of the wagon.

A couple of minutes of screams and battle sounds pasted before his cousin got tossed into the wagon and quickly had chains nailed to the opposite end of the wagon. His cousin's shirt was so full of blood; it dripped onto the floorboards, pooling around the crude nails holding his chains in place.

The creature who had cast the spell appeared again commanding six others. Two of the monsters held seven female captives, all in chains. Conth's mother among them. One by one the females were chained to the back of the wagon. All were already gagged.

The biggest of the attacking creatures came up tossing his brother into the wagon, followed moments later by his other cousin. Both boys were younger and were completely hogtied, gagged and blindfolded. They landed hard. Had cloth not muffled them, their cries would have carried some distance.

He could not see much out of the wagon except through the hole the first creature had made and out the now open back. What he did see, was enough. His father's and uncle's guards were dead. At least the three he could see. The caravan wagons were being hitched up and taken away. All the goods his family owned were removed from the wagon he was riding in and put into one of the other ones. Finally the two older boys from the third family that made up the total caravan were brought out for all to see. Two of their captors went up, held them with their arms pushed up behind their backs, and allowed the others to start hitting them. They were brutally beaten until neither moved. Their bodies were then loaded onto the last supply wagon with a clearly injured monster.

Quite a few minutes past as the wagon jumped up and down making a fierce pace. Each bounce caused a new bruise as his body impacted on the bare wooden floor. Looking back, it had probably been on purpose that the chains had been nailed down too far away from the sides for him or his cousin to get a handhold on the side of the wagon. The younger boys got it even worse, sliding and bouncing all over the inside.

Once Conth tried to hold his brother, but gave up because this made it even harder on him. At least with his hands free he could somewhat prevent the shackles from cutting into his wrists. Besides, he doubted the evil beings who now controlled him, would be gentle if they found out he had tried to help his brother. He didn't want to be held and beaten like the older boys had been.

In addition to his own pain, having to watch his little brother slide around and get splinters, he also had to bear witness to his mother's torments. The females fell one after another. The youngest first, then the others. There was no way anyone could have kept pace on foot that their captors demanded. His mother was the last to fall. He watched, eyes pleading for her to stand and keep moving. Whether or not she saw him, he didn't know for sure, but over and over she made her way to her feet only to fall and be dragged a little more. Several times she pulled up one of the younger girls even as she fell yet again. Her courage only lasted so long. She fell for the final time about 5 minutes before they took their first break.

Finally the leader ordered the wagon stopped. For the mother of the older boys, it came too late. They simply unchained her lifeless body and left it lying on the path. Orders were then given to toss the others into a second wagon outside of Conth's sight. One after another were picked up by one of the beasts and taken out of Conth's field of vision.

His mother was not among those given to the Orcs, so Conth wondered what happened to her. Of course his little brother and younger cousin had been left in the wagon when they pulled him and his older cousin up to the campsite. So there was a chance his mother remained alive. He hoped so even though he highly doubted he would ever see her again.

His father had taken him on many merchant runs so Conth understood his current situation. He had been captured in wild lands then given to another man. He was now a slave. No one would argue with his status unless they were direct family. Even if someone did, it would be his or her word against his current captor. Proof could be gained through a Mindmaster, but the man who now ‘owned' him could pass the test. He had not forcefully enslaved him and didn't know the exact circumstances surrounding the boy. All he knew for sure was that he had been given Conth and Jamon. To really be freed someone would have to track down the spell casting monster who had given them away and force it to be scanned by a Mindmaster. No one scanned slaves because very few slaves believed they should be slaves. This clouded the truth surrounding a Mindmaster reading so badly a real slave would often times be freed by his or her own thoughts. Those who owned slaves could not have that, so reading a slave just wasn't done.

Conth's father had done similar shady deals in the past, buying a boy or girl with no real proof of slave status. Some had paperwork. But with so few people knowing how to read, documents of a legal slave trade were not often made. An illiterate parent selling a child into slavery to get out of debt, to someone who also couldn't read, resulted in a just such a situation.

Such matters were often cleared up by a few silver under the table to a town ruler who could get paperwork made up after the fact. With such transactions being common place, the market of illegal slaves prospered. The profits were large and risks small. His own father had managed to get enough money to buy a second wagon from just such tactics. Probably about a full third of the kids his family had bought and sold had been illegitimate sales. Now the tables had turned and he knew a great deal of what happened to him would depend on his actions.

His best bet at any type of decent life now rested in the hands of the man in armor. Conth figured he had done a good job so far, doing exactly what he was told and always answering with "sir." As long as he kept doing so he hoped the man would at least be reasonable. Regardless of the man's actions, Conth made up his mind to do everything in his power to keep his ‘owner' happy as possible.

To this end he finished off the last bites of food, washed them down with water, and went over to the man force-feeding the Orcs.

Vondum crammed down a final mouthful of food into the girl Orc, clamped his hand over her mouth, and pinched her nose shut. This forced the squirming creature to swallow. With her hands still firmly secured to the branch behind her back, there was no way she could force herself to throw-up the meal. He followed up with a water skin, making her drink the entire contents.

He glanced over as the last gulp of water was forced down. "Ah, you finished every bite I hope."

"Yes sir."

"Outstanding. Did your brother eat?"

"Jamon is my cousin. He ate a full meal too sir."

Vondum scowled briefly, "I do not care if he is you cousin, friend, or stranger. You will refer to him as your brother from now on. Am I clear?"

Conth felt his hands start to shake again. His attempts at making this man happy were not going well at the moment. He concentrated for a second trying to figure out what the man would want to hear. "I am sorry. My brother ate his meal sir."

Vondum stood, kicking both Orcs onto their backs, "Move and I will cut off a finger." He growled in Orcish.

He turned back to Conth; "You seem to understand your place boy. I like that. I also like how quick witted you are. Come." Somewhat forcefully he placed his hand behind Conth's head and guided him over toward his mount.

Conth allowed the man to push him without turning, resisting, or commenting. The man dripped of pure evil most of the time, but he could sense a hidden caring side buried beneath layers of hate, resentment, and malice. The man was naturally greedy and power hungry. Anyone could tell this. As he was pushed out of view of the others he wondered if he could bring to the surface this man's long forgotten side. He also wondered what had made the man so mean, not that it really mattered.

Vondum sat on a flat frost covered stone and turned Conth to face him; "I could kill you."

Conth knew the man wanted to see fear. It wasn't hard at all to show it, but he made it worse look than he really felt. His shaking was real, his wide eyes and trembling lip were not. "P-p-please, I will d-d-do wh-whatever y-you want."

"Now maybe, but what about tomorrow, or a week from now?"

"I will. Really!" Conth knew his words would come back to haunt him. This man was testing him. He wanted Conth to speak the words voluntarily so he could bring them up whenever he needed them. He could hear the man's thoughts as each word was committed to memory. It suddenly dawned on the apprentice Mindmaster that his ‘owner' had long term plans for him in addition to more short term ones. This revelation broke his concentration ending his brief mind reading before he could find out more details. His teacher would have been highly displeased. It was rare for an apprentice to get any information let alone actually read thoughts. It might take weeks or even months for another opportunity and he had just blown this one.

Vondum pulled on the boy's shirt bring him closer, "You are prepared to do whatever I want?"

"I am sir. Please don't kill me."

"Do you know what you are?"

Conth nodded, "A slave."

"Close, but not quite." Vondum smiled with delight. "If you truly mean you will do whatever I want, you have dropped below even a slave. Do you still stick with your words?"

Conth did not understand exactly what the man holding his shirt was saying. Nothing was below a slave. Yet, he felt the man was deadly serious. He also knew his next words would save his life and that of his cousin or condemn both of them to suffering beyond belief. "I will do everything you command sir."

"Very well. I will say this only once, so get it set in your mind. By agreeing, you are whatever I want you to be, a tool, thief, diversion, murderer, toy, slave, whipping boy, servant, son, brother, orphan, or even a pet. One day you may be my nephew the next an indentured servant. Your life from this moment on is not only to please me, but also to act whatever role I need you to act. As long as you follow through, you and your brother will be slaves. He will require some breaking, but I will enjoy doing so. If you back out, I will make you torture your brother in a very painful slow manner. If you ever try to cross me I will make you kill him. Do not doubt for an instant of my abilities to make you do so either. Then it will be your turn."

Conth swallowed hard. Never before in his young life had he seen such a baneful look in someone's eyes. With tears welling in his eyes, he knew his life had changed irreversibly for the worse. His voice told of his surrender far more than his words. "I will do as you command sir."

Vondum liked what he saw. He pulled a hammer and chisel out of his saddlebags and cut off the shackles. "You will stay by my side until I give instructions otherwise. If I cannot reach out and touch you, you and your brother will both be punished."

Conth looked down at his free wrists and rubbed them before moving to stand next to his ‘owner'. Silently he wondered what his Warrior Adept Master and Mindmaster Teacher would think of his weakness. He hoped he would never have to find out.

Kandric had no problem keeping up a pace that matched the man and his captives. He clearly knew the area far better than the man and he had infravision allowing him to see much better than a human could in the moonlight. The cold night added to his advantage because heat sources stood out even better than normal. The fact that the man's mount kept breaking through the frozen crusts of mud-bogs further slowed the man's search efforts. Muttered curses often told Kandric exactly where his prey was.

Kandric watched Vondum stop, talk to the captives, and move into the woods. The man had sensed he was being followed which meant he was most likely an Outdoorsman. His skills, however, were not sharply honed in a swamp environment.

Just being an Outdoorsman, many people expect would be enough. One Outdoorsman would be as good as another, but the truth was quite different. It depended on the areas one mastered. An Outdoorsman trainee chose almost from the start of training what type areas he would be best in, what areas he would have some knowledge in, and what areas he would only have basic insights into.

Kandric had chosen to master swamp and forest and receive some training in grasslands and deserts. This left him knowing only the basics of tundra, mountain, and jungle survival. Although with the combined knowledge of swamps and forests, he was assured a jungle wouldn't be much of a problem as long as he used common sense.

His current adversary probably knew forests. He knew how to move in a heavily wooded area, but his limited knowledge of swamps and marshes allowed Kandric to out maneuver him. Several times the man crunched through a lightly frozen mud-bog slowing him down and distracting him enough to keep him always a few hundred steps behind Kandric.

It also gave Kandric enough time to sneak in and grab a pair of wrapped meals out of the man's saddlebags. Kandric heard part of the conversation between the man and smaller boy. The information on where the food was kept gave him a primary target. The man's mount didn't even seem to notice, being far too interested in the fresh water spring it was drinking out of.

Kandric thought about grabbing the boys, but realized it would doom them all. The kids would be unable to move quietly and would slow him down to a point were they would all most likely be captured. The noise of their chains would further make finding them a simple chore at best.

Kandric also considered thoughts about ambushing the man for a few minutes but dismissed such a risky move. Spells or no, the man was just too formidable to take on until he made a clear mistake. Lack of ability within the swamps was not a mistake. Besides, the man had cast a light spell and wore armor, so he was probably a Warrior Adept, which meant he was very experienced and his magic defiance would be quite strong.

Glaster had taught Kandric well and had taken him places for extra training over the years. Part of his training came from real guilds where he had been taught to judge other fields and how experienced others were. Therefore, he knew a Warrior Adept could not cast real spells until he or she was Teaching Echelon.

Warrior Adepts were basically a cross between a spell caster and a Swordsman; they had some advantages of both, but could do neither real well. They also had abilities to magically augment hearing, sight, smell, strength, stamina, coordination, or other traits for short durations. In addition they could sense magic shifts, danger, and even invisible beings when they got up to Teaching Echelon. The higher echelon a Warrior Adept was, the more he could increase these abilities. There was no way Kandric wanted to single-handedly take on a Teaching Echelon Warrior Adept until he had a clear chance at surprise or saw a major advantage. It didn't take a genius to realize the chances of either were extremely small.

The eager child side wanted to act. Fortunately all those times holding books above his head had taught him a more mature mindset. For about the fiftiethtime this night he silently thanked Glaster and wished for his guidance. He knew he was out of his league even trying to follow such a powerful and skilled man. But he couldn't just drop it.

He now knew the Illorc who commanded the Orcs and this man was responsible for the near starvation within the Swamp Slums. All the traps and snares he had lost over the winter had been because of his orders and they were getting ready to destroy whole villages. If he just let this man go, he would be guilty of not doing something to stop their vile plans. Besides, he knew Glaster would enjoy the boys if he could figure out a way to get them and bring them to Glaster's home. His master might even let him have some fun with them. It had happened before.

Before he could relax and think about good times with Glaster, he noted the man was hooking up the Orcs to his mount again. This time, however, only the taller boy was chained to the other loop. The smaller boy came into view unchained without even shackles. The armored man then mounted his steed and pulled the smaller boy up to ride with him.

Kandric shook his head, OK; I'll only have to worry about rescuing one of them. I'm not going to risk my life only to have someone turn on me. Still, he is awfully cute. Glaster would like him.

Gathering what was left of the stolen meals, he hung back long enough to give the man and his captives a good lead before continuing his parallel path. His thoughts were mixed. Part of him wanted to help the chained boy, another wanted revenge for the hard winter that was only made harder by the man's horrendous friends; still another part wondered what deal had been struck with the younger boy.

Such thoughts would only cause a mistake on his part so he concentrated on the task at hand. The first order of business was to keep a greater distance from the man. He knew the man had felt danger, a trait taught to all Outdoorsman in the wilderness. Added to his abilities to detect danger and increase his senses as a Warrior Adept, sticking close would not be wise at all. Kandric knew his swamp advantage would not last forever, and he didn't want to be discovered in regular forest areas by a man at least a full echelon better than he was. Instead, he used his knowledge of swamps and the area in particular to get in front and gauge where someone with a mount and leading prisoners would have to go.

Kilometer after kilometer slid beneath his feet. Confidence started to falter as he got to the edge of the swamps. By now Kandric had a good couple of kilometer lead on the man, but other options became available because bogs would no longer force a direction of travel.A few moments of thought changed his mind however. The early pre-dawn light revealed his location. If the man wanted to stay unnoticed he would have to stay off the paths leading to Slome and Hotcreek to the north and east.

The swamp lay behind him so going south would be out of the question. Smooth Rock would most likely prevent a northwesterly direction of travel, so the man's best bet to remain unseen would be to skirt the swamp to the west. Smiling, Kandric moved back into the swamp so he would still have an advantage if caught. He then headed slightly south and mostly west. After a couple more hours he found a nook between two fallen trees, pulled some peat moss over himself and settled down for a nap.

Vondum took in a breath of relief as the sun finally pushed back the misty night into a forgotten memory. The sensation of being watched had let up a couple hours before dawn, but now he could really take a look around. Nothing stirred. Even the cold wind of an early spring morning was dying down. It took a few minutes before he gave himself an all clear and lowered his guard some.

He needed sleep, as did the kids. Glancing back, he realized the human boy was probably already past the point of exhaustion. Every footfall seemed awkward. It would only be a matter of time before the boy turned an ankle or twisted a knee. Still, the youngster's weariness brought some satisfaction. Reworking a person from a spirited free being into a submissive slave took a mindset most people didn't have.

For Vondum, destroying a person's will remained one of life's biggest pleasures. Each being had differences which had to be found and exploited. Some, pain broke, others hunger. Constant fear devastated many; the only problem with such tactics was finding what terrified a person. A few required out thinking and trickery. Even after breaking hundreds of new slaves, he never tired of the ‘game'.

Vondum doubted either boy realized they were both pawns in this game. Each boy's treatment sent different, yet strong, messages to both of them. Conth's ability to maintain a feeling of self self-determination would last longer. Every time he followed instructions, he gave a part of himself away. Eventually, he would forget how to question his master. Sooner or later, probably later, he would realize he really did belong to the person giving orders. The shock of such a revelation would cause some rebellion. Once such actions were brought under control, all fight would be gone for good. His surrender would be complete.

Jamon's remolding would be more straightforward. He prided himself on not giving in. He could be forced, but somewhere in his mind he remained free because he hadn't willfully given in. This mindset was common. Vondum knew from experience such hardheadedness could be shattered by physically wearing Jamon down, keeping him debilitated, and making him ask for rest. The second he asked, a price would be attached. Eventually the boy would give in, too weak to care about his stubbornness. With his pride shattered, all fight would be gone.

If Vondum kept up the pressure long enough, the boy would never find enough confidence in himself to regain his pride. He again looked back. This time he stopped and turned his mount so Jamon could see Conth riding comfortably in front of him. Gently he ran a hand over the boy and handed him a water skin.

Jamon stopped and wavered from side to side. His eyes pleaded for a rest and he licked dry cracked lips as Conth took a long drink. Dismay clouded his face as the man prodded his mount forward and the chains pulled him forward again, this time slicing at an angle up hill. Briefly he stumbled as he tried to resist, but the constant pain on the back of his neck forced him to begin walking again.

Vondum smiled at Jamon's reactions. He gave the boy less than a week to be totally devoid of insubordination. His surrender would greatly assist Conth's eventual total compliance. Fear was such a wonderful tool.

Swampland slowly hardened into rough forestland as Vondum rode up a rocky ridgeline. For the first time in two full days he felt comfortable. Not only did he know exactly where he was, but also he was finally out of the swamp. If it were up to him, he would never again set foot in a swamp. Unfortunately, Monarch's plans would require quite a few more treks into the dismal murky nastiness. How anyone could find a swamp a comfortable place would forever elude him. With a great deal of relief he guided his mount deeper into the woods to the west. A few hours past before he saw what he had been looking for. A cottage like farmhouse and other buildings appeared. Smoke gently curled up into crisp still air out of several chimneys. Smells of smoking Dagger-boar meat, pinewood, and hickory filled his nostrils.

"Remember your place Conth." Vondum stated as he ran a hand through the boy's hair.

"Yes sir. No more than an arm's length."

"Excellent. Today you will call me master, not sir." Vondum firmly turned Conth's head to look into the boy's eyes, "Your first task will be to take the Orcs to the water trough, cut off their clothing, burn the clothing, and scrub the Orc's with silver root to get rid of lice. Make sure you then wash your own hair with it."

Conth's brow furled, "Sir…ah, master I don't…well, I'm not sure…"

"Conth, do not tell me you are going back on your word so soon."

"No master," Conth squeaked, "I just don't know if I can…"

Vondum squeezed Conth's jaw hard, "You can. They are far too tired to stop you. There is a scrub brush and silver root in the barn next to the cages. Once you finish, put them in a cage and lock it. If I find a single louse, you will regret it."

Conth tried to nod but couldn't because of Vondum's viselike grip. "I understand master, I need a knife then."

Vondum gave an approving grin, "That is more like it. Get yourself something to eat then get to work." He handed over a small hunting knife, "Make sure you use the brush between their legs, and butt cheeks. Also remember lice jump so you should take off your nightshirt before you wash them. Once they are secure wash yourself, and your clothing also with silver root. You can wear your nightshirt while your clothes dry.

"I want you next to me the moment you finish. By the way, your brother will not get a bite to eat or drink until you are next to me washed and in your nightshirt."

Conth grabbed another ration roll out of Vondum's saddlebag and a water skin. He looked down at the knife thinking about the task at hand. Silently he ate and shuddered. The thought of cutting off any creature's clothing revolted him, add to that forcefully washing any being really disgusted him. If he could get through this, nothing the man wanted would be too horrible.

Had he tried to use his Mindmaster training and gotten lucky enough to read surface thoughts, he may have found out Vondum wanted him to think exactly what he was thinking.

As he finished his last bite, he stood and exhaled. There was no point in prolonging the task. Besides, Jamon wouldn't get to eat until he finished. He pulled off his shirt and nightshirt exposing his chest to the cold air causing him to shiver for a second. He then grabbed the knife and pulled the Orc's ropes toward the water trough.

Vondum watched from a distance. The sight of the boy's chest and back sent a tingling sensation down his spine. Conth's skin was perfect, pale, and smooth. Small hard bumps stood at attention on the boy's chest accenting beautiful button sized breasts. Before turning to enter the cabin he stole one last look while cracking his knuckles. It wouldn't be long before that treasure would be his. In the meantime he had Jamon to play with.

He grabbed the chain escorting the worn out boy into the beckoning abode.

Two men jumped to their feet. One grabbed a spear leaning against the table he had been eating breakfast at. The other snatched a flail from beneath his chair. A young teen took a step back behind the men, still holding a skillet of fried pork strips.

"Slow this morning gentlemen."

The man with the spear let out a long breath before lowering the point to the floor, "Vondum, that is a great way to lose your life!"

Vondum laughed loudly, "Yea, right. I could have killed you both before you could have gathered your thoughts!" A humorous smile played across his lips.

The other man chuckled, "Didn't expect ya till later ta-day."

"Change of plans." Vondum jerked on the chain forcing Jamon into the room. The wooden branch caught on both sides of the door causing the chains to cut into Jamon's wrists. Jamon let out a pained yelp before adjusting his stance so he could enter sideways through the door. A second jerk forced him all the way in.

Vondum shrugged at Jamon's painful whimpers then shifted his gaze to the young teen "Tyfod, hook this one up to a wall so he has to stand, then go out to the cages and feed my Orc pets. You may have to force feed them, remember how?"

Tyfod lowered his head, "I remember master."

"As many as he went through, he better." The flail toting man grinned.

Vondum nodded, "True. Still, had to make sure. Tyfod, they stay in their arm-crosses until I say differently. That includes this one too. The other one you are not even to speak with."

"As you command."

"Very good. You are finally learning well." Vondum stated as he watched Tyfod hammer in a couple of hooks into the wall then pull Jamon's arm-cross over the hooks forcing the boy to stand.

Satisfied, Vondum rubbed his hands together and spoke a few arcane words. A mist of blackish brown spun through the air and entered Jamon's nose.

Jamon face contorted as he gagged a couple of times followed by a fierce coughing fit. When he resumed normal breathing, he looked up with bewildered eyes. His expression was a haggard mix of fear, self-pity, and confusion. His arms and neck hurt far worse than he thought possible and his feet and legs could barely support him. He tried to let the hooks and branch support his weight, but this only caused the rough wood to dig further into his neck.

Vondum walked over forcing Jamon's chin up so he could look into the tear-filled eyes. "The last time we stood this close, you tried to kick me. Care for another try?"

Jamon weakly shook his head.

Vondum forced the boy's head back even further causing extra pain to the back of his neck from the wooden arm bar. "I would like to hear an answer, not see one."

"I'm not gunna kick ya."

Vondum took off his gauntlets and slid his hand down Jamon's filthy dirt and tear-streaked face, "Ah, you do have a tongue, very good. Are you ready to listen?"


"OK, because you did speak, and are not kicking, you will be fed as soon as your cousin comes in. You and him are now brothers. Do not forget that. From here on out, when I get what I want, your life will be easier. When you want something, I will demand something in return. Right now there are only a few things I will even consider giving you. First is food and water. You will be given enough to stay alive, but if you want more or better food you have to ask. Second is rest, a chance to sit for example. As you can see I can easily prevent you from taking a seat. Third is sleep.

"Normally a boy your age would simply drop from over exertion and you would fall asleep regardless of your pain. You will not be so fortunate. The spell I just cast prevents sleep. No matter how tired you are, you cannot sleep. I will continue to cast this spell every six hours until you ask me to stop and you give me what I want. Should you ask and not agree to my terms, my price will go up a considerable amount the next time.

"Right at the moment, I only demand two things. When I ask you a question, you will answer and when you speak, you will address me as master. Refusing to do either one will result in severe punishment to you and your brother. The rest I can force you to do without resorting to such methods. Did I make myself clear?"

"Yes, master." Jamon's voice dripped with contempt as he spat out the word master.

"Oh, stubborn one huh Vondum?" The man with the flail noted as he headed out the door

"For the moment." Vondum glanced back at the table; "Food looks good. Who cooked?"

The other rested his spear against the table again, "Tyfod. He turned out to be quite the little house-boy."

"Not the brightest, but useful. A little over dressed though."

"He has outdoor chores, another moon cycle er two and it'll be warm enough to do away with much of that."

"I guess," Vondum muttered in some disappointment, "where'd Sy go?"

"Check on yer Orc's and to clear out one of the cages fer em."

"They full?"

"Not completely, but we managed to hit a pair of Hob patrols in the last few days. That's why there is no active watch. We're short of men. Sy had the ones who could walk taken to Black Rapids under yer colors so they'll think yer doin' yer job."

Vondum grabbed several strips of pork and slapped them on a hunk of bread, "Fantastic! How many?"

"Nine to Black Rapids, seven here."

"That will buy me an extra two weeks easy. How many did we lose?"

"Squad one got hammered. They're down ta three men. The other patrols only took minor crap. Patrol Four is escorting, and Two is out. That leaves just Three and the three leftovers from One here at the moment. "

"That's plenty as long as four comes back more or less in one piece. Any merchants?"

"Nope. But we really made a killin' on the supplies the Hobgoblins had. More than enough to pay the men and buy food for a couple of months. Some had good weapons too."

"They must be getting supplies from somewhere. We need to find out and cut their lines. Monarch is getting tired of them."

"Monarch," the man snorted, "why do we follow his orders? Who does he think he is?"

"Because he is probably the most powerful Sorcerer within five-hundred leagues of here if not further, and I, for one, am not about to go up against his Illorc forces. Besides, who else could force Goblins and Orcs to cooperate?"

"Maybe, but I'll never trust any Illorc."

"Me neither, not completely. As long as we watch our backs, and follow through we'll be fine. His plan is a good one." Vondum devoured his plate of food and walked back over to Jamon. "Do we have any clothing for this one?"

"I'm sure we do. What exactly you want him in?"

"I think you know the answer to that." Vondum snickered, "Until then, I just want him clean and in decent, non-blood stained, clothing. I'd prefer you to take care of it instead of one of the others though. I know you will handle him properly."

"No problem," the man grabbed his spear and stood, "I'll get right on it."

"Just get the clothing ready." Vondum checked the hooks holding the wood arm-cross to the wall while studying Jamon's slumping frame. Even as tired as he was, Jamon tightened up as Vondum stepped close.

Vondum smiled while looking down on the slender figure. The boy's black hair seemed very thick. It didn't take much to see it would be very soft and shiny when clean. Moving his eyes down he took in the long thin arms of a graceful boy ending in the hands of an artist, they moved up into well-shaped, yet somewhat skinny, shoulders and chest. The boy's slenderness was not hidden at all by the clothing, dirt and blood. Jamon's hips and legs were harder to get a feel for, being hidden by a shirt that was no longer tucked in and britches that hung in the fashion of a merchant, slightly baggy and loose. Mud caked boots hid the feet and ankles, but their small size gave away how diminutive and thin the feet in them must be.

It amazed Vondum that the boy had made it. Had he really looked before chaining the lad to the horse, he would have given zero chance of the boy making it. Inner-drive alone must have taken over somewhere. As much as he wanted to run his hands all over Jamon, he knew must hold off until all of the boy's stubbornness was extinguished. "He stays as he is until he asks for a rest." Vondum growled as he stomped through a door leading deeper into the cabin.

Dawn brought the sights and sounds of an early spring blizzard to Junsac. Aster woke up early to light the forge and get things organized for his temporary replacement only to find well over twenty centimeters of snow covering the wood pile and carpeting the ground. Huge snowflakes battered his face as he made his way to the apprentice barracks. Snow meant extra work. Walks had to be cleaned, wet wood brought in to dry, clean clothing brought in off the lines, and a whole host of other annoyances.

Such storms almost always traveled to the northeast which would mean Dark Ridge Pass would be getting dumped on shortly, if it wasn't already. Aster wondered if this would delay the trip. He doubted it would. Pocet had told him they had tried all winter to get up the pass. Rain, snow, sleet or sun made no difference. Handri had detoured a few times to make other trade runs, but he knew food, cloth, and other basics would fetch a handsome price above the Silver Spine Mountains. One successful run would surely make enough to offset all the failures and leave enough extra to justify continuing to try.

Aster banged the wake-up bell in the barracks hard, knowing none of the apprentices would want to get out of bed a single second before they had to. A few years ago, he thought the same way. Getting a small percentage of the profits after he made Primary Echelon changed his outlook. People would go out of their way to find a shop with swept walks and a clean corral. It showed the owner's pride in all aspects of his shop. "Snow Duties!" he shouted as he exited. Aster turned the corner around the barn only to find an elderly dwarf holding a gnarled staff. Instantly he stopped and knelt, "Master Lannet, how can I be of service?"

The wrinkles on the dwarf's face tightened into a smile as he motioned for Aster to stand. "You have always served us well my former apprentice. Are you still set on this journey?"

"I am, Master. The merchant has officially hired me. His lead guard, Pocet, took me around to get equipment and supplies for the trip. I really like Pocet. He does not seem uncomfortable around me at all. Is there a problem?"

"Other than my concern for your safety, no." Master Lannet reached up and patted Aster's shoulder. "I can still remember when I could reach down to tousle your hair. Now I must reach up to touch your shoulder. You were my youngest apprentice, and you have made me the proudest of all the children I have taught. I just wanted you to hear that from me before you left."

"Master, even if I take a full time position with Handri, I will come see you now and again. Without you speaking up for me the Animal Adept Guild would have never authorized my training. I owe you more than I could ever hope to repay."

"You are so wrong Aster. You repaid me one hundred fold. How many times have you put your young life on the line for a member of The Watch?"

"That makes no difference master. The happiest day of my life was when you approached me to help The Watch. Without you I would be an orphan, probably working here and at the Healthman's shop, nothing more."

"Your inner drive got you to where you are Aster. I feel privileged to have assisted. I gave a small hand up, not a hand out. You grabbed and have never looked back. I am very proud of you. Still, the thing you gave me that I will treasure the most is your love." Slowly the ancient dwarf turned to head off.

"Master, Please do not leave. Stay for breakfast. It is too cold and nasty for you to have to walk on an empty stomach. Besides, you know Caldon adores you. He would be very hurt if you did not at least say hello."

Master Lannet again smiled, "A very kind offer. Are you sure I will not hold things up?"

"Never. You are always welcome here." Aster wrapped his arm around his teacher and led him into the warmth of the kitchen area behind the forge.

Lannet shook off the snow and cold heading straight for the fire, "When do you leave?"

"Hopefully tomorrow. The Metalworker's Guild sent us a Teaching Echelon female to take over for me. Thanks for your help on that."

"Not a problem." Lannet continued to rub his hands together close to the open flames while watching Aster gather breakfast and start cooking. "Is there anything you need?"

"No, I can take care of breakfast. Would you care for a glass of juice or a Dwarvin ale with your eggs and Frost Elk steak?

"Frost Elk?" Lannet's gray eyebrows shot up.

Aster chuckled, "Yea. Shade and Dart brought it down last night. Shade came back and got me. You should have seen the look on Pocet's face when he came up on it. He still doesn't know exactly what Shade and Dart are, but he is absolutely convinced they are deadly!"

"He sure has that right. Very few things can kill a Frost Elk. Did either get hurt?"

"Dart got a little frost bite, but I took care of it with no problem."

"Good! Well, I think you know how I feel about eating such fine food without an ale!"

Aster nodded, already pouring the thick brew out of a small keg. "Yep."

Lannet let out a cackling laugh as he took the offered mug. "Why even ask if you were already pouring?"

"Just because," Aster whispered as he gave Lannet a light kiss on the forehead. "I will always love you as if you were my father."

Lannet hugged Aster, "Thank you. You know how to make an old man very happy. But getting back to my earlier question about needing anything. I was referring to your trip, not breakfast."

"Oh. No, I think we'll be fine." Aster answered too quickly.

"Aster, I sense you are hiding something from me. I may be old, but I am still a Master Echelon Mindmaster. Your feelings of unease stand out whether or not I am actively trying to read you."

Aster took a deep breath. "I have never seen The Watch send a group into the wild lands, let alone into and above the Silver Spine Mountains without a spell caster."

"What type of merchant would go outside the kingdom without a spell caster?" Concern clouded Lannet's eyes.

"From what Pocet told me, he has hired casters in the past, but they always wanted too much money to stay on in dangerous areas."

"Spell casters are rare enough out here to demand premium rates, but the cost is worth it."

Aster flipped the steaks before getting up the courage to speak his mind, "Master, could I ask a slight favor?"

"Name it."

Aster spoke quickly before he lost his nerve, "I want Conner released to me."

Master Lannet's eyes grew wide with surprise; "You cannot be serious Aster!"

"Master, I am. I will pay off his debt."

"He is nothing more than a thief!"

"A trained thief and Mage, Master." Aster took a deep breath, "He has the skills we need, and he is still my friend."

"I know he was your friend Aster, but he stole out of this very shop. How can you trust him?"

"Master, you once said that a true friend sticks by through thick and thin. We were in the orphanage together; he was the only one who would even talk to me when I first got sent there. I owe him a second chance."

"He betrayed your trust in him, you owe him nothing."

Aster winced as he remembered his friend asking if he could stay in the forge one night only to wake up the next morning to find two weapons missing off the wall and Conner nowhere to be seen.

The city watch found Conner four hours later hiding in an alley under some trash, but no sign of the weapons had ever turned up. Conner had been sentenced to day auction every four days until the price of the weapons times three had been earned. The city day auction stage was basically a place to find a slave for seventy-two hours. The highest bidder won. The only requirements the winning bidder had to follow were enough food and water to keep strength up and no permanent marks. Family and known friends were not allowed to bid either. This prevented a quick and easy stint on the day auction block.

Half the money went to the owner of the stolen items, the other half to the city. It was a punishment that kept thievery down within the Barony of Junsac and earned a great deal of money for the city at the same time.

The fourth day Conner got to rest in the city jail, but Aster knew an eleven year old equivalent elf would not find any rest in a cell with a bunch of men. The guards would not care what happened as long as no one's life was in imminent danger, that was for sure.

Master Lannet could see Aster was not persuaded by his argument, so he took a long swig of ale before speaking again. "You realize he still owes over eighty silver."

"Eighty-seven. I can pay that fine now, but I need him to get his spell book back to be of any real help to us. I cannot afford the price of all his spell pages."

"His book is forfeit Aster, He will get it back but will have to remove all the pages."

"I know. But I also know that rule can be bent. Please Master."

Master Lannet downed the last of the mug before speaking; "He is only a Primary Echelon Step 2 Mage. That is not much magical firepower."

Aster finished seasoning the steaks then refilled Master Lannet's mug, "It is a hundredfold more than we have now." Aster's voice sounded matter of fact and resigned.

"You were always good at debates!" Master Lannet chuckled. "As usual, you are correct. What would your new employer say to having another child with his caravan?"

"I asked Pocet last night. He assured me, Handri would take any spell caster I could find. I was going to go to the guild to find someone, I know I could find some kid who would love to go, but I cannot abandon Conner. I still do not know what happened exactly, but those two Elvin Silver Steel daggers had to go somewhere."

"He scanned as guilty. I know. I scanned him. It was your request, remember?"

"Yes, but you told me there was some gray areas that he wouldn't explain."

"True. He was hiding something. I am sure, but I am only allowed to go so far when I force scan. If I had pried I would have done real damage and as stubborn as he was acting I would have had to seriously hurt him, besides I got what I needed to find him guilty. He is guilty."

"I know Master. I would never doubt you. Forget it. I should not have asked at all, except when you offered to help I got the idea. Sorry."

Master Lannet stood and walked over to Aster and gently put his arm around the boy, "You have nothing to be sorry for. If you are really willing to pay that much silver, than I know this is important to you."

"I am Master. I will pay a hundred if it will help." Hope entered his voice.

"Save your money Aster. I will take care of it. He will be your responsibility though Aster."

"I understand. Can you let him use Watch equipment so I do not have to outfit him?"

"Get me a list."

"I will get on it as soon as morning duties are done Master."

Master Lannet nodded. "Very well. I will deliver him to you outside the city. Contact me the moment you clear the gate."

Aster lightly rubbed his Watch dagger pin. "I will, and thank you."

"I am very proud of you for standing by your friend, just be careful. I do not want you to get bit for offering your hand to him."

Aster smiled in gratitude but couldn't answer because the others were coming in for breakfast and all the youngsters wanted to talk to Master Lannet. It amazed Aster as he watched the elderly dwarf suddenly come alive and become playful, just like the kids he was playing with. It seemed two hundred years evaporated when kids started giving him hugs and attention. Wrinkles even appeared to diminish the more the apprentices from the forge paid attention to the old Animal Adept.

Morning quickly gave way to afternoon. Business was terrible. The snow showed no signs of slowing, if anything it was getting harder as Aster closed shop early and made his way down to the inn Handri and his men were staying in. Shade stuck close by his side keeping a wary eye on the few out on the streets. Trouble would be easy to find on such deserted avenues. This time, however, the trouble came to Aster.

Only the brave, desperate, greedy or foolish would want anything to do with such a storm. Of the four categories a combination of the last two were what the huge canine caught scent of upon turning onto a small side street.

No one with a gram of common sense would trifle with a boy commanding a wolf, but the gleam of offered silver sometimes pushed reasonable thinking to the side.

Aster noticed Shade tense before he saw the figures come out of the alley. Already warned, the lead man's feeble attempt at a surprise blow to his back passed harmlessly over his head.

Shade needed no order to attack. The canine pounced with extended claws with such speed the second man hadn't even gotten all the way out of the alley before his partner was on the ground mortally wounded.

Aster spun throwing a pair of daggers at the second man who came out with a short sword pointed toward Shade. Both daggers found homes in the man's flesh. The first buried its razor sharp blade to the hilt in the man's left thigh the other struck the right shoulder sinking in all the way to the bone. Screaming in pain, the man fell hard in the snow which slowly took on a crimson tinge.

A third fell in the alley before he could even get off a shot with his crossbow. Several feather tipped quills protruded from his face and upper chest. An airborne cry told Aster Dart was also on the job without the need for commands.

A fourth person stopped advancing then started to bolt back down the alley.

"Shade, I want him alive!" Aster yelled as he advanced on the man thrashing around with two of his daggers still sticking out of bloody wounds. "Dart, I know you're up there! Cover Shade!" A piercing shriek answered Aster's commands as Shade shot off in pursuit faster than any arrow could hope to fly.

Aster wasted no time pulling one of his four remaining daggers out of his chest bandoleer. With a disgusted look at the would-be attacker he used the back of the dagger to render the man unconscious. A series of terrified pleas down the ally told him Shade and Dart had the situation firmly under control so he fingered his Watch pin. "Any Watch member this is Aster. I need assistance in front of the Black Stallion Pub. I was attacked and have captives!"

Instantly his thoughts were answered "Aster this is Lannet are you safe?"

"I do not seem to be in jeopardy at the moment Master, but my situation is very unclear. Two attackers are dead, two injured. I saw no one else but cannot be sure."

"Put your back to a wall. I will be there in under two minutes!" another voice answered. Three others voices followed, saying they were on the way as well. Aster only recognized two of the four.

Carefully Aster maneuvered down the alley to where Shade had a teenaged human pushed firmly into a snowdrift. The young woman held a bloody hand to her stomach and a shod staff lay just out of her reach. She carried a large book pouch, but it was empty. A hole in a drift to her right showed where the contents of the pouch now lay. Two other teens circled menacingly but stayed away from Shades snapping jaws. Both wore poorly made leather armor and had short swords. They started to step forward the second they saw Aster but backed off when Shade let out a nasty snarl.

"Dart!" Aster shouted, "Some help please!"

Another shriek split the snow-quieted streets followed by a half dozen barbed feathers four of which tore into the bigger of the two remaining teens. The young man collapsed without a sound. The final kid turned to run only to find a black robed being blocking the alley to the right and a scimitar toting Hawkling covering the entrance. The blue and gold feathers of the Hawkling's head showed ruffling. A clear sign it was ready, and maybe even hoping, for a fight. There was no where to run.

Before the ruffian could make up his mind, the being in the black raised his left hand. Purplish-red magical power rippled around the dark rough skinned hand for an instant, before leaping with a crackling sound into the held short sword. The metal sparked for an instant before, literally, melting in the young man's grasp. Molten metal poured over his hand and down his pant leg, igniting the leather as if it were paper. Screams of agony, followed by the hissing sounds of snow being melted and turned to steam, echoed off the surrounding buildings.

Fortunately the lad fell in the snow putting out the flames. The damage had already done however. Pain overwhelmed his senses as he blacked out.

The Hawkling advanced keeping its scimitar ready. His beak like mouth made his voice sound somewhat parrot like, "Aster, are you alright?"

"Yea, not a scratch. Thanks for the help Sardan."

The dark robed figure approached, "Ssssix on one. You did well little one." Its voice sounded deep and almost snake like.

"Thank you sir. I have not met you. I am Aster."

"Your kind callsssss me Falk. Humanoid like toungesss have a very hard time sssssaying my given name. I have heard much about you. Glad I wassss near."

Aster grinned, "So am I. I have never seen a spell like that before. May I ask what that was?"

The black hood moved up and down, "Heat metal."

"I've never seen a Sorcerer be able to heat metal that much!" Aster proclaimed in somewhat disbelief.

"Not many can put the amount of force into a heat metal spell as I can. Besidesssss it was only bronzzzze. A harder metal would have ssssimply glowed red."

"Gee, your magic would be great in a forge." Aster remarked.

A couple of hisses, which Aster took to be laughter, proceeded Falk's next words; "A true metal worker at heart!"

"Yea, cannot help myself. Anyway, thanks again."

Sardan looked around, "Aster, this was a major attack. Pocet was also challenged earlier. Until we know what or who is behind this you should not be out alone."

Falk spoke up; "I concur little one. Allow Ssssardan to take you to where you were going. I will clean up here and take the live onessss to Master Lannet. We will get an explanation, be certain of that."

"Pocet? Is he alright?"

"Fine," Sardan chirped out a laugh, "lucky for his attackers the city guard heard the sounds of battle. He dropped three. The other three are in the jail, all wounded."

"Good," Aster breathed, "We have a trip to go on."

"I have been told." Falk answered, "Worry not. We will get back to you quickly. The weather will not break for a couple of dayssss according to our people anyway. Not even your new employer would be foolhardy enough to go out in the middle of a blizzzzzard."

Aster frowned, "You do not think highly of Handri?" "Let me just put it thissss way little one, I think he knowsssss how to make money, but hasssss not learned to care about other beingsssss yet. Now be off. We will get back to you before nightfall."

Aster nodded consent, "I look forward to finding out what this was about. Any chance you can talk with the survivors of Pocet's fight?"

"Count on it little one." Falk replied. "Count on it."

Sardan kept his blade out while motioning for Aster to hurry, "Come on. Let the Watch handle cleanup." Already the other two watch members who had promised assistance were busy cleaning up the mess on the street.

Aster called Shade and Dart to follow before joining Sardan; "It seems like someone does not want this trip to happen."

"I tend to agree my young colleague. I just wish I could go with you. This has now officially become Watch business."

"There is little chance they knew I am a volunteer of the Watch."

"Matters not. They attacked you in the city of Junsac. If whoever is behind these attacks can get people into the city to kill someone it means the people of the whole barony are at risk. We will try to round up a team, but that will take time."

Aster shook his head; "The first one didn't try to strike a killing blow. I think they wanted to injure me or take me hostage."

Sardan's eyes narrowed, "Really? Are you sure?"

"I know a non-killing blow when I see one. He was going for a waylay with the back of his mace."

"I will inform Master Lannet of this after we get you around friends. You going to meet with Handri?"

"Pocet actually, but they are in the same inn."

"Fine. Stay there. I'll get a member of the Watch to keep an eye on the place."

"Don't waste Watch resources, Sardan. We can take care of ourselves."

Sardan hawk-like face seemed to grin for a moment as he stopped in front of the inn, "I know, but you are one of us. Let us help you out. Do you need anything?"

Aster's brown furled in thought for a moment, "Actually, yes."


"My daggers back."

Sardan laughed so hard he had a hard time speaking, "Done! Have ‘em to you by nightfall." His laughter continued until his beak-faced form turned down a side street and disappeared from view in the blowing snow.

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