Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 9

Posted: 1 Jun 15

The Kandric Saga

Kyle Aarons

Gablon looked over his men. The attack against the Orc enclave had been a complete success and it showed in the eyes of all his hired guards. Although physically exhausted, a sense of pride and satisfaction could be seen in facial expressions, their attitudes, and their swagger. Those who stayed back to guard the wagons were in no way excluded, nor were those from the swamps who joined in the original defense of the caravan and their homes.

Gablon made it a point to have his Healthmen tend to every Swamp Slum dweller's wounds and do whatever they could to heal other injuries as well. This required him to send men back into Slome to buy more healing herbs, but for him it was worth it.

In addition, he allowed the Slum residents to take whatever tools and weapons they wanted from the Orc supplies captured from fallen warriors and other equipment found inside the Orc's enclave.

His men were by no means left out. All coins captured were pooled together, counted up and awarded according to rank. The officers got three copper for every two the sergeants got, while the lowest members got one copper. When it was all said and done everyone ended up with over two months worth of extra pay. The finer quality weapons captured were added to a reserve weapons stockpile. The small amount of real valuables, such as gems and jewelry, Gablon took for himself, but not before spending about half of it to supply all the Swamp Slums residents with enough food for a full week.

Gablon walked over to the makeshift stockade the men had made to hold the captured Orcs. These were the ones too young, too old, or too scared to fight when his men pulled their surprise assault on their homes. Every single Orc making any attempt to fight had been killed regardless of age or sex.

The pair of guards stood up a little straighter as Gablon approached. He nodded to them, "Any trouble?"

The older guard answered, "Not since we chained them sir. The younger ones keep crying though."

Gablon shook his head. "Separate them into age groups. Any of them under like, oh eight, leave unchained. And make sure they are fed."

"They sure didn't care about those they captured sir, why should we care about them?"

Gablon glared at the guard, "Because we are not Orcs."

The man cringed, "Sorry sir, I'll get right on it."

Emroc came over followed closely by Darmoth and Rathiter. "Sir?"

Gablon cringed seeing the bandages holding Darmoth's broken arm. None of the boys were in good shape, and he cursed himself for allowing Emroc to go, let alone the two small Elves. But their knowledge and skills had been instrumental in the attack. The two Elf brothers knew the Orcish tongue. They agreed to boldly go up to the Orc's village acting like they were lost. Their innocent looks distracted the guards long enough for the Swordsmen to close in and eliminate them. Their bravery and slyness allowed the subsequent attack to be pulled off in complete surprise.

Unfortunately, one of the Orc's managed to injure both kids when it realized what was happening, but it didn't live long enough to raise an alarm. In addition to Darmoth's broken arm, his brother's nose got broken and now had a wrap over it with herbs sticking out of the nostrils to help with pain, so the poor youngster had to breathe through his mouth constantly.

Emroc took a vicious blow to his left leg as he helped the Swordsmen when they assaulted the central cave, so besides the blackened eye received during the fight at the Slums; he now walked with an awkward limp.

"Emroc," Gablon scolded, "all three of you are supposed to be on bed rest."

"I know sir, but everyone else is busy or too injured to walk at all, so we figured we could at least run errand boy duties. Besides, it's stuffy in the infirmary hut."

Gablon shook his head, boys will be boys, he reminded himself, "OK, what do you need?"

"The men you sent to Slome are back. They brought the new men and the guy you wanted to talk to. He is in your hut."

"Thank you Emroc. Are you boys up to taking meals out to the guards on duty?"

Darmoth grinned holding up his one good arm, "I can carry the water in a bucket."

Gablon gave the boy a squeeze on the shoulder, "I'm sure you can. OK boys, get to work then."

Gablon watched the trio head off to the hut he had rented for the cook to use. As he did so, he made a mental note to check with a Healthman to see if Emroc should even be walking on his injured leg. He shrugged; at worst it would mean the youngster would have to get his leg fixed up all over again. He hurried off to his rented shack.

Two guards had six new hired Swordsmen lined up for inspection. Gablon's heart sunk some when he saw all six were quite young and were all Primary Echelon, step 1's. "Who do we have here, Sergeant Klorna?"

The Dwarvin Swordswoman saw Gablon's look and nodded in understanding. Quickly she introduced each one by name before pulling him off to the side with a flip of her head. "We advertised with runners all day, but this is all we got to show up. Maybe it is the weather, but I think the fact we lost so many of our new hires in the last raid really cut into our chances here."

Gablon glanced over his shoulder; "Did you test them?"

"They are all brand new guild certified. Slome has a small school. We talked to their instructors and verified their standing with the guild. Three are Outdoorsmen, one a Metalworker, one a Healthman, and the youngest one over there is a Ruinseeker, he's also a Avgon Channeler."

"Channeler for the god of air? There is one I have never traveled with before!"

"Me neither sir."

"Interesting, What is he, sixteen?"

"Fifteen." Klorna answered, "The tall lanky Healthman is the oldest, and he is only seventeen. Sorry sir, it was the best we could do."

"So be it." Gablon took a deep breath, "You brought one of the town council?"

"Yea." Klorna was clearly not thrilled. Her voice alone spoke volumes as to her personal distaste of the person.

"Not a nice guy?"

"Total dirt ball, and has a real odor emanating from his mouth which is every bit as foul as his language."

"I see." Gablon smirked, "A bit of ye ole dragon breath?"

Klorna laughed, "More than a bit!"

Gablon patted the trusted Swordswoman on the shoulder as he moved toward his hut, "Then I shall endeavor to stay back a few paces!"

Klorna had to keep her back turned to the new hires for a few moments before she could force a sterner look into her facial features, "OK, stop standing around. You are getting paid to work not be statues. Take a look around and get to know the other guards. We captured five wagons from the Orc's so we have quite a caravan to protect! Those of you who know anything about woodworking, get your butts over to where the wagons are. Orcs don't know how to keep up a wagon so those we captured need work!"

Gablon made his way into the small hut. As the door opened, he could already smell a faint hint of scented oils which meant the man probably didn't wash enough. Instead the man used his wealth to hide behind herbs and oils. This meant the man was too lazy to take a bath and rich enough to flaunt it. Instantly, he disliked the man.

The man stood at the far side of the room and made no attempt to approach. He wore expensive dyed baggy clothing typical of merchants, had a well sewn rabbit fur coat, and thick fur lined gloves poked out of pockets on each side of the coat. His hands were currently exploring one of the girls Gablon had bought from a woman who was looking for a way to make as much silver as she could, even if it happened to be at the expense of her own kids.

Of all the purchases he had made over the past few days, the woman had been the only one to sell off all her kids. Because of this, Gablon had paid less than half what he had offered the other parents per each child. Still she had made out quite well selling three girls and two boys to him. Rumor had it the woman had taken the money and run.

Gablon almost said something, but stopped himself. Instead he put on his best friendly merchant look, "Thanks for coming out in such dismal weather. I would have sent a wagon, but alas, they will not move in such heavy snow."

The man didn't look impressed by Gablon's attempt pleasantries, "Good Merchant. I was told you wished to speak with a member of the council, and you would offer a just reward for me making my way out in such dreadful conditions."

"As I will. Please have a seat." Gablon motioned toward one of his two nice chairs he had brought into the hut for this meeting. He also held out a gold and onyx necklace to keep the man's interest.

The man eyed the chain for a second before grabbing it. He then took a seat and roughly pulled the girl over to him by her hair. He then grabbed the whimpering child and put her on his lap. "My name is Councilman Parad. What can I do for you?"

"May I call you Parad?"

"If it will make this go any quicker, you may." His hand slid up under the girl's sackcloth dress as he continued to talk; "I ever so much dislike being out here."

Gablon would have loved to kill the man right where he sat. Parad's over inflated ego was already wearing thin. The fact he was taking liberties with a slave without even asking next to infuriated Gablon. If only he would be more gentle. The girl has no training and was only sold by her mother two days ago. But I cannot say a thing! Right now I need this pompous ass. Gablon forced another smile. The girl would just have to endure what was happening. "I agree, no one likes to be in slums, but a broken wagon forced the issue for us." If I continue being this phony I will need a second bath today!

"Such misfortune was probably due. You made a mint in my town by being the first caravan with good supplies to make it this winter!" The girl tried to squirm some as his hand continued to move around under her dress. He grabbed the girl's hair with his other hand and yanked. She yelped, but stopped trying to get away. Her eyes pleaded for Gablon to do something.

"Yes, so I understand. But it was not without cost." Gablon turned his attention to the girl for a moment, feeling like an evil demon as he did so, "You behave or I will forget to feed you the next few days!"

Not only the girl, but also all the slaves in the hut lowered their heads. More than one showed signs of wanting to cry.

"Not very subservient are they?"

"I just bought them from their parents." Gablon suddenly wondered if he had the mindset to be a slave trader. He had to fight his desire to give all the kids hugs. He had ordered around slaves after he started getting his secret Shaman training. He even owned a couple at his home, but they had been slaves and had known their place from the time he had purchased them. Until now he had never thought about what it must be like for a former free person to become a slave. To take his mind off the dilemma, he went back to matters at hand, "Anyway, I know you are a busy man so let me get straight to the point. We eliminated an entire tribe of Orcs yesterday."

"Yes, so I hear. You have dealt a major defeat to the nasty creatures around Slome. We have already agreed to pay full price for every head."

"I know, and I must say you were quite kind in doing so. I know your bounty coffers must have taken a real pounding."

"Indeed they did. So what else can the good Council of Slome do for you?"

"Well, there are two separate matters dealing with the destruction of the Orc village and one other matter as well I need to talk to you about."

Parad did something with his hidden hand causing the girl to bite her lip and softly begin to cry, "Let me guess. You need paperwork on these urchins?"

Gablon clenched his fist but kept his look casual, "Yes."

"If you have paper and wax, I can handle such matters for you right here. Let's say all the paperwork you need for this slave?"

Gablon nearly exploded, but again forced himself to look much calmer than he was, "You attach a major price. I was thinking more on line with five silver per slave."

Parad scowled then shrugged, "We can settle on a price I am sure. What else do you need?"

"We captured a great many Orc females, children and elders who could not or would not fight. Are they my property?"

"They attacked you first?"

"Absolutely Parad." Gablon stated emphatically, "Every being in the Slums here would swear in a temple they attacked us. Then and only then did we strike back."

"Then they are yours. I can fill out those documents as well. They do not sell for much, but I am sure there are quite a few merchants who would be happy to buy Orc children to work in their shops. Any Halforc females could be of some use as pleasure items for those who like to be rough, but the others would only be good for manual labor. I am sure I could find buyers for almost all of your stock for a small commission."

This time Gablon nodded in earnest. He had no desire to take any of the Orcs with him. Some of the Halforc children would probably fetch a better price below the Silver Spine Mountains, but that was all he wanted to take along, "I am sure we can come to terms on a commission. The last matter is much more complicated though."

Parad's hand continued to grope the girl as he settled back a little. Tears openly rolled down her cheeks, but she made no more sounds other than an occasion yelp. "I am here, so we might as well cover all matters."

"Very well. My guards liberated quite a few beings being held as captives by the Orcs. The adults, what few of them there were, we allowed to go free with any family members. We gave them some food, weapons and a couple of silver to get restarted. We, however, are stuck with a number of youth."

"What do you want to do with them?"

"I really do not know. Some were being purposely fattened up for food, while others were reduced to being pets on a leash for the Orcs' entertainment. It seems they liked to make fun of the other races. We even have a pair of Hobgoblin boys who were being led around on a leash by one of the Orc warriors. His dead hand had to be pried off the chains."

Parad scratched his chin for a moment, "Are any of the children from Slome?"

"Those who are, we have sent word to their parents. Unfortunately, only two of the five want their children back. The others are afraid their children will be too uncivilized to be around brothers and sisters after spending such a long time with Orcs."

Parad nodded, "I must say I cannot blame them. I doubt I would want my boy or girl back unless they had been captured for only a short period of time. I also must respectfully refuse to take any of them into the orphanage. I do not want them hurting other children. Where are the others from?"

"Almost all of them were taken from merchant caravans. From what we have found out from captives we have taken the Orcs and Gnolls are working together to stop caravans from getting around this winter."

"We have suspected as much," Parad stated. "It seemed like Slome has been in a blockade of sorts for the last few months. Our city guard has managed to get enough supplies in to prevent the peasants from noticing, but it has not been easy and we have spent quite a bit of city funds to buy food and other goods. Your caravan made it to us just in time to prevent suspicions from getting to where we couldn't control them. This is one of the reasons we readily agreed to pay full bounty on all the kills your group made. Your arrival has helped the council greatly.

"As far as the other kids go, why don't you just give this one to me and pay me two silver a head. I'll sign over ownership on all of them to you."

Gablon couldn't believe the man could be so cold hearted. The poor kids have just been rescued. How can I turn them into slaves? Yet, he couldn't keep them with him for free. The cost of feeding them alone would be too great a burden. Nor could he send them to fend for themselves, to do so would be nothing less than murder, only much crueler. It also occurred to him; it would be next to impossible to find an orphanage willing to take them in. They were outcasts.

With a heavy heart Gablon looked at the girl one last time and nodded, "Very well. As soon as we are done, I will have a pair of guards escort you back to Slome."

Kandric glanced over his shoulder. Jamon knew the basics of how to ride, but lacked the skill to keep the War Steed moving through deep snow. Turning his animal yet again, he grabbed hold of the reins and guided the befuddled boy's mount over the latest hazard. "Let me keep the reins. Otherwise, we may never get there!"

Jamon hung his head, "Sorry, master."

Vondum doubled back as well shaking his head, "Kandric, the steed knows the way home, put Jamon on with you like I have Conth, and let's get going!"

"Sir," Kandric stated, "We may very well need an extra mount when we get to the swamps. No trails are visible and it has not even stopped snowing yet. Riding out here is easy compared to what we face when we hit the swamp."

Vondum was clearly not used to having orders or suggestions questioned, but he looked at Kandric's face and his heart softened just a little. This allowed reason to take over, "I hadn't thought of swamp navigation. You are probably as good or better at it than I am." Vondum sighed wondering when the last time he admitted such a thing to anyone even when he knew it to be true, "OK, let me guide the steed out here, when we get to the swamps you get to take the lead."

The response surprised Kandric. He half expected a confrontation. Not getting one eased his mind some, while being told he would actually take the lead, astounded the young Halfelf. "I am honored, sir!"

Vondum gave Kandric a quick smile as he attached longer leads to the reins of Jamon's mount. "I am interested to see how good an Outdoorsman you really are!"

"I like challenges!" Kandric replied proudly as they once again moved forward.

For several hours Kandric remained virtually silent watching how Vondum used the land to pick and choose the best path. He avoided nearly all the deep drifts by using what nature had provided. This kept the animals from tiring too quickly. Although the actual distance traveled was more than quadruple what a strait line path would have been, Kandric realized Vondum had saved time because they only had to rest the animals once before they reached the swamps.

Vondum slid off his mount and pulled Conth down beside him, "We have about three hours of useful daylight left. Do you want to head into the swamp now or wait till morning?"

Kandric looked at the steeds and saw they were breathing hard, "My suggestion is to give the mounts an hour rest and then see how they are. I do not want to push them too hard, but I would like to get a little closer to Slome."

Vondum nodded, "Yea, we are still three or three and a half days out. I didn't realize just how much snow we received."

"Two, two and a half at most." Kandric stated with confidence.

"You are pushing it, Kandric. I know you want to get home, but I do not want you pushing the animals."

"I would never risk a mount." Kandric's voice sounded a tad bit hurt.

"I know you wouldn't, at least not intentionally. But your need to get home might be pushing you to do things you would not normally consider thinking about."

"I have made those kinds of mistakes before when I trained with Glaster. I know better now." Kandric lowered his voice, realizing he was starting to get upset. "I guess what I should be telling you is, I could make this trip on foot in a day and a half normally."

Vondum's eyes went wide, "Including the swamp?"

"Sure!" Kandric smiled, "I grew up out here; I can make my way through a swamp just as fast as a normal guy can travel in a forest."

"This I cannot wait to see!" Vondum turned his attention toward Conth, "Clear some snow from the ground so my steeds can find some food! "

Kandric nodded, "Jamon help him."

Vondum walked down the embankment where the real swamps began. He grabbed a long stick and started poking the ground looking for the firmest path.

Kandric followed. Once he was sure he was out of earshot of the two slave boys he pointed to a powdery ribbon of snow. "Over there."

Vondum looked back with a frown; "One of us should be watching them."

"Consider it a test. The only thing they could do, would be to try to run. With their total lack of skills we could catch them on foot even they took the mounts. Besides, Conth would fall off from exhaustion with as little sleep as he has had."

Vondum wrapped an arm around Kandric's shoulders he chuckled, "Very true. I found I kept having to shake him so he stayed awake. If I hadn't been holding on to him a couple of times he would have fallen."

"Mind if I ask why you are not letting him get more sleep?"

"Do you disapprove?"

Kandric fiercely shook his head to make up for the fact he knew his eyes said something totally different, "No. I am just very interested. I have always wanted to learn more about slave handling, and you seem to know exactly what you are doing."

"Your way of handling Jamon seems to be working quite well."

"Only because you got him to the point where anything would be better than having the stick tied to his back again."

Vondum smiled, "Only partially true. You knew exactly how to take charge when you first saw him. Yes, I bet he does see you as a bit of a rescuer. However, you still demand much of him. Only a couple of weeks ago he was probably a free boy, but you have made him accept his role in life as a slave. You have done very well.

"Conth is a different story. He submitted to being a slave very quickly because he is very intelligent. He knew he would get better treatment over all if he accepted his future. He has, as of yet, not broken. Somewhere inside him he still sees himself as free because he does everything willingly, at least for the most part. He has not asked for anything. Eventually he will have to beg me for more rest. When he does so, he is giving me control. When this happens, I will be able to give extra rest or deny it. I will sometimes grant his request, but most of the time I will not. In short order he will no longer be able to say he is in control of his life."

Kandric digested the information slowly. He could not be sure if it made sense or not. Some of it did, other parts didn't. The problem was he wasn't even sure which parts were which. He looked up and saw Vondum staring at him. He felt he would again have to tell a half-truth to keep the man from becoming suspicious. Little did he know he had already gained far more trust than Vondum himself knew he had to give. "I was wondering…"

Vondum squeezed Kandric's shoulders a little tighter. "What my friend." Vondum felt his own throat tense as he spoke the last word. For the first time in more years than he could easily remember, the word friend held real meaning. For Vondum, this was a true shock. The full extent of it would not fall on him for several hours.

"Can you teach me how to make a good slave?"

"I would be happy to. You have mentioned your interest before, but mind if I ask why you want to learn such an unpleasant task?"

"I am not sure it would be all unpleasant. Having control over Jamon has been quite nice." Kandric begrudgingly had to admit this was indeed true, as was the second part, "Glaster usually paid to have a slave trained. We would drop the person off and pick them up a few weeks or even a month later."

The last part however was a half-truth at best, but it slid off his tongue with the rest making it sound totally convincing. "Besides, it feels good to be able to hold someone else's life in my hands. I feel more powerful and important with a slave."

Vondum nodded understanding completely Kandric's words, "I would be happy to teach you if Glaster will allow it. Let's not forget what we need to do now, however. What were you going to show me when you came down here?"

Kandric guided him over to the spot he had pointed to. "We will go that way to start."

Vondum scowled, "The snow is deeper there."

"Yes, but not from drifting."


"Snow takes longer to build on a muddy soil than dry ground. The water in the mud melts the snow at first so the dry ground ends up with more snow, but underneath it will be hard ground." Kandric nodded to the fluffy snow. "Go ahead try your stick."

Vondum pushed the branch into the whiteness. Much to his surprise he hit solid ground, "I cannot be more impressed Kandric. You have taught me something!"

Kandric giggled, "I thought you Expert Echelon guys knew it all!

Vondum playfully grabbed Kandric and started tickling him.

As laughter escaped Kandric's lips, Conth stopped clearing snow above. His Mindmaster abilities felt a release of love buried so deep in Vondum, it nearly exploded. In the brief instant when Vondum's natural barriers were totally down Conth saw into the huge man's heart. The pain, agony, and suffering from years of torment became clear. Natural barriers which came with becoming higher Echeloned snapped the door shut before Conth could learn more. Nevertheless, the few pictures plucked from Vondum's mind revealed a past of misery and agony. So powerful were the feelings and pictures Conth fell to the ground clutching his head.

Fortunately for Conth, Jamon came over and made his cousin get up and resume work before Vondum returned. "Don't lay there! If we aren't workin' when they get back we'll be in big trouble!"

Conth pulled himself up and wiped a thin trickle of blood from his nose. He knew this meant he had overextended his Mindmaster abilities and had done physical damage to himself but this time it hadn't been his fault. He just hoped he hadn't accidentally hurt Vondum as well. The last thing he wanted would be to have hurt the guy. He was mean enough as is. There would be no telling how nasty he would be with a headache.

Making matters even worse, the expenditure of Mindmaster energy made him more tired than he already was. He knew he would not be able to keep going without more sleep. Ignoring the looks his cousin continued to give him, he started clearing more snow on his hands and knees so the animals could eat.

Back at the edge of the swamp, Kandric continued to squirm under Vondum's tickling hands.

Finally Vondum backed up and let him get some air.

Kandric grinned from ear to ear as he took in a few deep breaths, then he frowned, "Your nose is bleeding."

Vondum wiped at it with his hand and saw a small amount of blood, "No big deal, your head probably bumped this big snout of mine." He waved it off "That's what I get for tickling such a highly skilled Shaman!"

Kandric smiled, "Let me fix it at least!"

"If you insist."

Kandric hastily cast a healing spell. "I do not want this to be the last time we have fun."

Vondum wiggled his nose, realizing the magic had cured the nosebleed and a mild headache he hadn't even noticed before. "I look forward to it as much, if not more than, you do!" Vondum nodded his head in the direction of the Warsteeds. "We better get up there and make sure they stayed put and did their tasks."

Vondum crested the ridge half expecting to see at least one of the boys not working. What he found impressed him. All three steeds munched on some of the buried foliage Jamon and Conth had uncovered while the kids continued to work to make more available. "That is enough for now."

Conth took a deep breath, stood and walked over to Vondum. His place was next to his master the moment a duty ended. By now he was getting used to it.

Jamon started to move toward Kandric, but was waved off.

"Break out rations. We will eat while the mounts are resting." Kandric commanded.

"Can we have a fire, master?" Conth asked with chattering teeth. "I am very cold."

Vondum shook his head, "No. We will not be here long enough. The food will help you warm up."

Kandric took the offered ration roll from Jamon before speaking; "It might be a good idea to let both of them change into dry clothing. They both got wet cleaning snow."

Vondum rubbed down Conth's britches for a moment, briefly resting his hand on the boy's crotch, "Normally I would let him deal with it, but we do not want them getting sick, do we?"

"Not only that, but the swamp will be colder. There is more moisture down there and the further we go, the more cold and damp it will get."

"Good point. Conth change into the warmer clothing I had you pack."

Kandric nodded for Jamon to do the same. "Make sure you stand on a spot you cleared. I do not want your feet getting wet or snow getting inside your boots while you change."

Both boys knew better than to ask where they should change. Their masters' both liked to see them, so there was no point asking. The both stripped out in the open and put on the dry warmer clothing they had been allowed to bring along. Once fully clothed, they put their wet clothing into a previously empty saddlebag before going to sit with their respective masters.

Vondum pulled Conth onto his lap as he spoke, "Have you ever come this way before?"

"Not with mounts." Kandric answered while grabbing Jamon's food roll, "This area is pretty treacherous on foot. Riding through will not be easy." Looking down he shook his head, "Jamon what did I tell you about eating?"

"The master always eats first unless permission is given."

"So why did you start to untie your roll?"

Jamon bottom lip quivered, "I do not have a reason master."

"Why should I feed you then?"

Jamon felt trapped. Kandric didn't demand very much. One of the few things he did require, which seemed very demeaning, was not to eat until non-slaves were finished. He knew this single command was a throwback to Kandric's teacher. Kandric had told him Glaster had taught all his students from his first days around slaves not to allow servants or slaves to eat at the same table, nor to let them dine at the same time as their owners. This was some sort of royal custom, which allowed the masters to have the best food available, while leaving whatever was left for servants, then slaves. The very fact Kandric had taken time to explain why he had such a rule only made the present situation worse.

"I asked you a question Jamon."

Jamon knew his next words would leave him hungry and cold, but he didn't see a way out, "I guess I shouldn't be fed."


"I should go hungry. I acted like a free person, master. I am sorry."

Kandric started to put the food roll in his pouch, "Will this ever happen again?"

Jamon's head sank as he saw the food disappearing from sight. Since breakfast they had been given nothing to eat and now it wouldn't be until morning before he got fed again. "Never again, Master."

Kandric pulled out one of his throwing knives, pulled the roll back out and cut it being careful not to spill any of the dry fruits or nuts wrapped inside. "Next time you will loose two meals Jamon, this time you only lose half of one." Kandric purposefully held out the larger portion for Jamon.

Jamon took it and held it with thankful eyes. This time he made no effort to eat. Instead he watched the others eat. He didn't understand why Conth got to eat while he couldn't, but he concluded he was lucky to be holding on to any food at all and what Vondum did with Conth was not any of his concern.

Vondum looked over with approval, "So what is the best way to get to Slome without cutting around the whole swamp and adding six or seven days to our travel time?"

"Tough call. If we stick to the standard paths, we will be fighting mud and thin ice the whole way. What I would like to do is far quicker, because the deeper we get into the swamps the colder it will be and the more frozen the ground. It would also be easier for me to spot harder ground. I was thinking we may want to head straight for the interior and take the Splitrock Knolls we all know are there. I am pretty sure the two of us could handle the danger, but I am not so enthused with the idea of having to protect Conth and Jamon."

Vondum glanced up to make sure Kandric was not teasing him, while Jamon and Conth looked at each other in horror.

"You are serious?" Vondum asked still not sure whether or not to believe the boy.

"Yea." Kandric stayed firm, "You are one of the best Warrior Adepts up here, and I am a better than average Shaman. We have Conth and Jamon to keep watch on our gear if we get into a fight, and I have healing spells.

"The Knolls are higher ground for the most part, so we should be able to make it there and through before nightfall tomorrow. If not, we will certainly be close to getting out. Besides, the other options will add at lest a day to our travel time and I do not know the status of my mom and siblings."

Vondum warmed to the idea slowly, "I've never attempted the Knolls before. It sounds intriguing!"

"Master?" Jamon looked up still waiting to eat, his jaw trembling in fear

"What?" Kandric asked somewhat annoyed

"You aren't talking about the Swamp Highlands, are you?" Concern clearly could be seen in Jamon's face and eyes.

"Yes we are." Vondum confirmed.

"But that place is haunted!" Conth spoke up for the first time, "No one goes to the Knolls!"

Vondum laughed, "Very true, not even the Lizardmen or Illorcs will brave Splitrock. The poor Orcs, Kobalds, Goblins, and Hobgoblins will not even head into the swamp's interior because of the place. In many ways it may make the trip safer!"

"I have only seen them once." Vondum added while still smiling, "What about you Kandric?"

"Twice. One time Glaster and I camped on the outer edge of the Knolls. My Outdoorsman side of me could have sworn we were being watched all night, but nothing happened. We both have magic weapons, Conth says he has a little Warrior Adept training, so he could clean up gear after any fights, and Jamon could tend to other minor duties, so we could rest. Besides, there is supposed to be hoards of treasure in them!"

"Very true." Vondum confirmed. "Sounds like we better get moving then. We want to be as close as possible to Splitrock as possible, so we can make it through in a single day. Unless we find something too interesting to pass up, that is."

"Even if we do, we should map it, then continue to move if at all possible. I need to make sure Mom is all right."

Vondum agreed with a reassuring smile. "One thing is for sure, it probably will not go anywhere if we do find something. No one else goes through the Knolls, so all we will have to do is go back through and check things out on the way back.

"Speaking of which, Kandric, when we are done here, would you mind coming to Black Rapids with me so I can at least check in? They do pay me to be the Captain of the Guard, after all."

"Sure!" Kandric nodded eagerly. Black Rapids was a place of wonder to Kandric even after all his travels. Cities in general with all their trade goods, ships and other places drew Kandric, but Black Rapids was really special. It had a library where he could pay a silver and spend a whole day with hundreds of books. Ever since his first visit with Glaster, he wanted to spend more time there. "How long would we be there?"

"Probably a week, maybe two." Vondum saw the look in Kandric's eyes and chuckled, "And I could get you into the library for free and even let you browse through some other the archives below the palace."

"I do not know if two weeks would be enough!"

Vondum lowered his head and laughed, "How can you be a bookworm and an Outdoorsman? They just don't fit very well!"

"It does when I am in ruins." Kandric replied slyly getting Vondum to laugh even harder.

"Touché!" Vondum boomed as he stood, "We better get ready to move out!"

Kandric pointed to the food still in Jamon's hands, "Eat up. I will get our mounts ready."

"Master you aren't going to make us go into the Swamp Highlands, are you?"

"Yes, Jamon I am going to make you go. I will protect you with my life if I have to, but you are going. I do not want to hear another complaint. Am I clear?"


"Jamon," Kandric shook his head as a warning, interrupting before more could be said, "Not another word!"

Jamon ate the half roll of food with a knot in his gut. Every child in the Silver Spine Plateau was told terrible stories of the hills in the middle of the swamp. No one, not even the some of the legendary heroes of Kronar, entered the Swamp Highlands. The Kingdom back then had encompassed the entire continent. Hundreds of years ago the kingdom of Kronar fractured in a bloody civil war as the races each tried to stake their own claim to the throne.

Since then, the mystique of Splitrock had grown even worse. While kingdoms rose and fell over the years, two things remained the same in the old Kronar kingdom. First was no one had ever charted more than one pass through the dreaded Deathland Range Mountains. Second, nothing good ever entered Splitrock and came back.

However, if he did make it through, Jamon realized he may well get to see Black Rapids' famed library. As a Ruinseeker trainee, nothing would make him happier. The only problem with his interest would mean revealing he had some training to Kandric. At the moment though, he guessed his chances of having to worry about such a problem was slim. He figured he would be dead or worse in a day and a half give or take.

Aster finished going over the checklist with Pocet one last time. Everything was at last ready for the caravan to move out. He looked over the two new wagons Handri had added with a bemused grin. It would be up to Pocet, his three guards, Conner and himself to defend the three supply wagons plus Handri's personal wagon, which also carried the food.

Each wagon now had a Dwarvin driver. They would add a little defense if pressed, but the other men Handri had hired were just men. They had no special training and would be slaughtered with relative ease. No matter how hard he tried, Aster could find no logic to having them along. He figured, correctly, he and his pets alone could take out all ten Swords without getting more than a scratch or two. Heck, Dart could simply fly above toss down a few feathers, take out a few men, keep them busy while Shade went in and finished off the rest.

During all this Aster realized he could have his pets do all the work while he sat down and had a snack. A meal would be out of the question; the fight would be over before he could do more than finish a peach and down a few swallows of water. All he would have to do would be to clean up and maybe patch up Dart. Shade was immune to non-magical weapons and none of the men had them. However, his canine still hurt for a few minutes after being clobbered by a mace or sword, so alone they could beat on him until he was forced to retreat if Dart was not giving some assistance.

Handri came in with Master Lannet. He didn't look at all pleased. "Aster!"

Aster finished checking the final knots before jumping down, "Sir?"

"Pocet just told me you two would be bringing your new slave! What do you think I am, some sort of traveling orphanage?"

"We can't leave him sir."

"Why not? There is a good slave auction block here in Junsac. He would get a good price for you and Pocet!"

"I can't sell him after all he as been through!" Aster next to shouted.

"He will not come with this caravan! Am I being…" Handri grabbed his temples for a moment and staggered.

Aster started to move forward only to see Master Lannet shake his head. Hiding a grin, Aster backed up and disappeared around the wagon. He had seen this before, yet it never ceased to amaze him how powerful Master Lannet actually was. His body may have grown old, but his mind was extremely sharp. Fact of the matter was, Master Lannet could kill a normal man through thought while only giving himself a slight headache.

Seconds later Handri's voice again echoed in the barn where the caravan wagons were being kept. "Aster!"

Aster came around the wagon, "Sir?"

"Pocet just told me you two would be bringing your new slave! What do you think I am, some sort of traveling orphanage?"

"But we cannot leave him sir!"

"I understand. But I will not pay for his food and gear unless he can be of use to the caravan."

Aster thought quickly, "He could be used to keep the horses groomed and feed the guards who are on watch."

"From what I have seen, he doesn't seem to be up to such tasks yet: He hasn't even spoken."

"Then I will pay for his food until he does start helping out. Take a copper a day of my pay if you like. I will also pay to equip him."

Handri softened some, "I will take half a copper a day in pay if you equip him. Once he starts working I will pay for his food."

"No problem sir." Aster smiled.

"You will also have to make room for him in your tent or buy him one of his own." Handri stated firmly, "I will not allow a slave to sleep in the big tent with free men."

"I understand. He can sleep in the big tent Pocet and I bought for Conner and us."

"Very well. Are the wagons all ready to roll?"

Aster nodded, "All checked and ready. The Warsteeds are all healthy and I got two more. One for Conner the other for me, thanks to the Watch."

Handri held up his hand," Oh yea. Speaking of the Watch, Master Lannet is here to see you. Make sure you get a good night's sleep. We leave at first light.

"Thanks. See you then."

Handri nodded and walked out with a puzzled expression.

Aster laughed, "How hard did you push him?"

"Not very. Sometime in the next week or so he will remember he came here to make it clear your little prize was to stay behind one way or the other. About then he will wonder what happened."

"Oh, by then it will be far too late."

Lannet grinned, "Indeed it will." He gave Aster a hug knowing it would be the last he would get from his favorite pupil for quite some time, "But my reason for this visit is not for this at all."

Aster looked into the Dwarf's eyes quizzically. "So why are you here Master?"

"The four slaves I turned in the arena belong to you and Pocet. What do you want to do with them?"

"You have to ask Pocet."

Lannet shook his finger with a grin, "Do not go there Aster."

"Let me guess," Aster giggled, "Pocet said to ask me?"

"Indeed he did." Lannet nodded.

"What can you tell me about them?"

"Why do you think I know anything?"

"Because, you had to dig around in their minds to get them to change them and I know you well enough to know you had the Watch do some checking long before you went to Pocet."

"You just have me all figured out!" Lannet smiled as he ruffled the boy's hair. "OK, you are most assuredly correct. Three of the four men were easy to tamper with. They didn't like the idea of fighting you. They saw you as a boy and they didn't have much desire to hurt a child.

"The fourth required considerably more effort to sway. He was the reason I didn't get a chance to work on the last guy, whom I doubted I could have done much with anyway. That jerk you took out thought the boy up in the cage should be left there to starve. He even wanted to watch and eat meals in front of him while he slowly wasted away."

"He was thinking those thoughts?"

"Yes. I knew I wouldn't stand much chance with him so I worked on the others first."

Aster shuddered, "I am even more glad I killed him then! Why was the other guy so hard to convince?"

"They had all been offered their freedom if they fought and survived. None of them knew exactly why they were going to fight at the arena, but the tall blond Swordsman didn't care. He wanted to kill and it didn't matter who as long as he would get his freedom."

Aster listened to Lannet's words not knowing what to think. If I was a slave, I bet I would feel the same way. How can I fault a man who just wanted to be free so badly it didn't matter what he had to do to get there? Another question interrupted his thinking, "Master how did you make him betray his owner?"

"I convinced him it was all a trick. Made him think they were going to auction him off the second they finished in the arena. It was a hard fought battle because he kept trying to come up with a reason this wouldn't be true, but I finally won out. He became angry as he came to the conclusion he would not be free and it was all a trick and the only way he could get back at his new owner would be not to fight for him."

"Very sneaky, Master!" Aster gave Lannet another hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Lannet smiled, "If I knew I was going to get this type of reaction, I would have tried a little harder on the last guy!"

Aster laughed hard, "You deserve more hugs than I can give you in my lifetime!"

Lannet brushed away a tear before turning serious; "I need to know what you want to do with them Aster. All the weapons and armor they bought belongs to you as well as the equipment on those killed. Pocet suggested I trade in the Druid's spell pages for ones Conner needed so I did so, and even got enough to make him a backup book. You gave the magical scimitar to Pocet, so he said the rest must belong to you, including the slaves."

"Is the blade safe?"

"Yes. We had the Mage Guild research it. It is a Scimitar of attack and defense. Not all that uncommon, at least as magical weapons go."

"Now I understand how the guy was able to deflect one of Conner's dives! The blade did it for him!"

"I missed the fight," Lannet admitted a little sheepishly, "but if the blade got in the way of one of Conner's weapons, then I am sure you are correct. I for one am glad Pocet has more than a magical dagger now. Only you and him have magical weapons, you know."

"Yea. I've got two magical daggers, though, so I figured I would let Conner use one. I almost never use them since I have the axe. There is no real reason for me to carry both of them."

"Well, we have a surprise for you anyway." Lannet beamed a wide smile, "but you will find out more about it tomorrow morning."

Aster tried to give his best puppy-dog eyes look to Lannet, but this time it didn't work. Knowing there was no chance of finding out more, he begrudgingly shrugged. "Well if I am going to have to spend the next twenty hours guessing I better find something else to do. Will you come with me to where the slaves are being held so I can talk to them?"

"Good idea. Lead the way!"

Clear across the city, a young boy was desperately trying to figure out how he was going to get out of a walled city with so many people looking to lock him up with his younger brother and sister. If Quavis had known less than a two dozen city guardsmen even knew he was wanted and of them only five had a clue as to what he looked like, his predicament wouldn't have looked nearly so dire.

Add in the fact the Watch had basically told the city guard to let him slip away if he was caught, he would have simply walked out one of the city gates. However, he was eleven-years-old, and had been brought up in a very sheltered world for the most part. To his way of thinking, every guard in the city was surely looking for him.

Since getting out of the house his "father" had sent him to, Quavis wandered around ducking in back alley after back alley whenever he saw a patrol come near. Exhausted, he finally found a couple of discarded crates in the back of a warehouse close to the docks to hide in and got some sleep. Teeth chattering and feeling hungrier than he had ever felt before, he woke well after sun up.

Hunger was a new sensation to the pampered lad. He always had three meals of good quality food and any snacks he wanted. Quavis could have sworn he was going to be sick, his stomach hurt so badly. Yet, he figured there was nothing in his gut to get rid of. He knew he would never again look at a starving person without feeling a little sorry for them. Maybe this was a message from Crytrall, goddess of fresh water, the goddess Quavis secretly worshipped.

Knowing he couldn't stay in his hiding place all day, he peaked around. Seeing no one, he slipped from the crates and started to head down the alley. A voice from behind stopped him dead in his tracks.

"Young man, you are not doing very well trying to get out of the city are you?

Quavis turned to see a Hawkling gazing at him. The creature's cloak held a Teaching Echelon step 4 Swordsman pin, an equal grade Outdoorsman pin and worst of all the Jade dagger pin of the Watch adorned his left breast. For a brief instant he turned to run.

"Do not be foolish. Do you really think you can run from me?"

Quavis' shoulders slumped as he turned around. "Not really."

"Then come here. I do not want to have to hurt you."

"We didn't steal for the Watch! Honestly, we didn't!"

"I believe you," Sardan stated, "but there is little I can do. You must tell your story to the magistrate." The Hawkling paused for a moment, "Unless…"

"Unless what?"

"Well, maybe we can figure a way out of this for you. Tell me what happened."

Quavis hung his head and cried, "Our dad sent us there to pick something up. We had no way of knowing there was stolen stuff there!"

"Then how did your brother and sister manage to have items stolen from a Watch member on them?"

Quavis took some deep breaths and tried to control his tears. With his left arm he wiped his nose, only to see a line of snot on his shirtsleeve. "I don't know." He whimpered.

Sardan knelt in front of the terrified boy; "If the Watch and I helped you get out of the city, is there somewhere you could go?"

Quavis frowned in puzzlement. "Why would you help me?"

"Because the young Watch member who had most of the things taken from his shop, does not believe you are at fault. But we cannot go against the city guard directly. If I get you out of the city, I must have a place to take you."

"What about my sister and brother?"

"The city guards already have your brother and sister. We cannot do anything about them. You, on the other hand are still free, and the guards will lose interest in you as long as the person who had the stuff stolen does not press the issue."

"But you work for the Watch." Quavis pleaded, "There must be something you can do for my sister and brother, isn't there?"

"Did your father always do what we wanted him to do?" Sardan asked, wondering how much the boy actually knew about his father.

Slowly Quavis shook his head, "No, sir. Dad said he worked for the city, so the Watch couldn't tell him to do nothing."

Sardan felt his blood boil. All he wanted to do was go rip the father apart, but he kept his voice soft, "You answered your own question. Your brother and sister will have to go through the day auction sales for six months, then they will be owned by the person who is trying to help you. There is no chance they will make the money needed to be free."

Quavis looked at the ground and kicked at a stone, his mind spinning. I don't own them nothing, but I can't just let them become slaves. They are all I have. If I hadn't have messed up and said we should check out the house they would not be in the dungeons now. With a deep breath, he raised his head enough to look the kneeling Hawkling in the eyes, "What if I turned myself in?"

Sardan cocked his head to his side, "Why?"

"I don't want my sister and brother to be slaves."

Sardan saw the sincerity in the boy's eyes and saw the youngster's hands begin to shake. His attitude about allowing this boy to go free changed from being displeased with Aster's decision, to liking it. "I am sorry son; all your actions would do would be to become a slave yourself. Three children could not hope to pay off the debt amassed from your father's operation. All I can tell you, is they will be well treated once they are owned by the Watch member who had the most stolen."

"What about the while they are on the day slave block?" Quavis asked in a desperate voice.

"I will see what I can do. Maybe some of the Watch members will need a servant for a few days or can rent them to do chores. If so, they will be treated well as long as they behave."

"You would do that?" Hope came into Quavis' eyes.

"I will. But there will be times when we will be outbid. When it happens they will be at the mercy of whoever was willing to pay." Sardan stopped for a moment, but continued as he saw the boy's head and shoulders sag, "I will, however guarantee most of the time a Watch member will have them. Unfortunate as this my sound, they will not find their duties even with Watch members to be like living at home. They will have to work hard, sleep little, and will not get the best of food. They will be safe though and will not get punished unless they disobey."

Quavis wiped away his tears again and forced himself not to sob, "It will be better than nothing, sir. Thank you."

Sardan stroked the boy's hair; "You are welcome. Now back to my original question. Who can I take you to outside of the city?"

Quavis cringed, "All my family lives in Junsac."

"What about friends?"

Quavis again looked desperate as he lifted his gaze, "There is a barge captain, but I don't know where he is. I sailed with him and his son once, but they only come here about two times a year."

Sardan scratched the feathers on his head for a minute, "Humm, Do you know the name of the captain or his ship?"

"Yea, His name is Captain Pontarious. He owns the barge Thunder Rapids."

Sardan shook his head, not knowing either the captain or his ship, "I don't know anything about him, but I assure you, someone in the Watch will be able to find out. Let us get you out of the city and safe while the Watch finds him."


"How do we find him, or how do we get you out of the city?"

Quavis grinned nervously, "Both."

Sardan laughed, liking the boy more and more, "Follow me. The city guard will not bother you as long as they see you are with me, and we are having a friendly conversation."

"What am I supposed to talk about? I don't even know you!"

"When you look at me, what interests you the most?"

"Your race and Swordsman pin." Quavis answered without hesitation.

"Then ask me questions about what you are interested in. They would never suspect you are wanted and we will simply walk out the eastern gate."

"Then what?"

"Well, I guess you will want to get some clothing, some food, and some other basic gear. So we will go shopping in one of the outlying towns while a few of my friends starts tracking down the barge captain. It may take a little while, so you can either find an inn you can work at for a while or help me out as I try to find out some information the Watch has been needing."

Quavis stared is shock, "How could I ever help you?"

Sardan chirped out a laugh, "People will say things when a boy is around without thinking, whereas they would surely keep their beaks clamped tightly when I am close at hand."

The pair continued to talk over what use Quavis could be to the watch, what types of foods Hawklings ate, and what it was like to be a Swordsman as they walked through town and right out of the east gate. Before he realized it, Quavis found himself half a kilometer down the road leading away from Junsac.

Aster ordered Shade and Dart to wait outside as he entered the arena dungeon with a shiver. Cries of pain and despair echoed down the damp, rock-walled, corridors from somewhere below. Distant sounds of a whip striking flesh, followed by agonizing shouts for mercy came from somewhere even deeper in the labyrinth of tunnels under the arena. All he could think about was if the overseer's two kids were in such a dismal place.

Lannet seemed preoccupied as he led the way and didn't seem to notice Aster's discomfort. By the elderly Dwarf's walk alone, those around him could tell the sights, sounds, feelings, and smells simply bounced off with no real effect. More than once, guards parted at his approach well before he got close.

After what seemed to be a very long trek, Lannet turned, "Be ready my boy. Some of the men down here would do much to get a hold of such a fine looking boy as you. They will have nothing to lose by shouting out vulgarities the likes of which would cause the demon lords to blush.

Aster laughed allowing some of the tension to flee his body.

"Remember, not to pay them any mind. If they see they are getting to you, it will only be worse."

Aster nodded understanding; "I am ready, Master."

Lannet pointed to a guard to open the heavy bronze bound door. He then motioned for Aster to take the lead. His wisdom in this became evident. The men hanging on chains attached to the chamber called out to Aster announcing vile intentions. Those who said the nastiest things received a staff upside the head or to a knee. By the time the pair had made it past the prisoners condemned to fight twenty-five death matches to earn their freedom, all of them had fallen silent. Some because they saw no effect on Aster, but most because they didn't have any desire to feel the well-placed whack of a heavy stick.

Two more guarded doors opened before Aster found himself face to face with the men who had been bought for the sole purpose of killing Pocet and him the day before. Other men, women, and children also inhabited this dismal room lit by a pair of torches. Smoke from the torches seemed to be drawn out through a pair of holes over the women's cages, but the air was still very smoky. Within a few moments Aster felt his eyes burning.

Aster turned to Lannet, "What is this place?"

"This is where slaves are held when their exact status is unknown. Some are runaways, others are being held while estates of deceased masters are settled, and the rest are here waiting to find out if their owners or parents can come up with funds to pay off debts. If they can raise the money their property will be given back. If not, they will be sold on the open market.

"These four are all you should concern yourself with Aster. There is nothing you can do for the others unless you wanted to make an offer. You have enough irons in the fire without having to worry about any more."

Aster nodded tearing his watering eyes away from a couple of boys who would clearly be cute if they were cleaned up. His heart went out to the pair, but Lannet was right, he had other matters to attend to. Advancing on the cage holding the three men, Aster took in their stance and demeanor. The one Lannet turned at the last second look completely opposite of the other three. His eyes looked mean and angry and he had his fists clenched.

The other three looked on in more of a hopeful pleading fashion. Their overall posture was nowhere near as ridged nor did they look on with hate and malice of their partner. The tallest of the three even knelt as Aster approached and kept his gaze down.

Aster addressed the knelling man first, "Please stand. You are a Swordsman and should act as such."

The sandy haired, brown-eyed man spoke with a soft voice. "You are my owner. You defeated the man who purchased us. I am only showing you proper respect."

"This is true, but please stand like the Swordsman I know you are." Aster waited for a moment as the man stood then got strait to the point, "Why did you not fight for him?"

"He did not tell me I would be facing children. I would prefer to be a slave than to hurt a child."

Aster glanced to Lannet. Once he got a nod, Aster pointed to one of the guards who had accompanied them into the room. "Release him and give him back the gear he came in here with. He will be coming with me."

Lannet detected a slight hesitation and barked, "Guardsman, he is this man's rightful owner. Unless you want to be his next victim in the arena, you will do as he commands!"

All dawdling vanished as the guard looked down at Lannet and Aster. The man quickly opened the cage and escorted the man out. As the guard left, another entered the room to take his place.

Aster quickly focused on the second man, "What about you. Why did you not fight for your master?"

This was the youngest of the three, only in his mid-to-late teens. He also appeared to be far weaker overall than the others. He supported a nasty bruise below his left eye and both his wrists had hand marks on them. None of this had been present before the fight. "I can't kill animals unless they are for food."

This got a snort from the tall blond Swordsman, who merely twisted his mouth into a half-disgusted grin.

"Guard, ready him as well." Aster stated. He watched as the teen tried to hide a limp as he followed the guard out of the cage.

Aster wanted to ask what had happened. Clearly at least one of the other Swordsmen had beaten on the teen, but he doubted he would ever find out unless he got the teen to talk about it. The others didn't seem to care all that much. This worried him, but he needed to finish this. The smoky room was really beginning to get to him. Looking at the third man Lannet had easily convinced, he spoke, "What about you?"

The third man looked smaller and more wiry in build then the first man, but far stronger then the teenager. His voice, however, held far more power and authority than either of the first two. "His orders was to make those we was to face suffer. If you had been an adult, I would have had no trouble choppin' you to pieces slowly in order to gain my freedom, but I ain't about to hurt no kid who happened to have an Archer Eagle on his side. I knew as soon as I saw yer bird, we was in over our head and hadn't been told the whole story. Besides, I ain't into beatin' down no kid. I would a gone after yer Swordsman friend, but that's where I would a had ta draw the line."

Aster again got a slight nod from Lannet, "OK, will you obey me?"

The man shrugged, "Yer my Owner. I guess I will unless you are asking me to do somethin' I know will get me dead."

Aster took a deep breath, then realized this was not a good idea. He spent several seconds coughing. The more deep breaths he took, the more smoke entered his lungs. The man smirked and reached out so he could push Aster toward the ground where the air was a little fresher.

One of the guards advanced only to be stopped by a raised hand from Aster, "Get him out of here and get him the gear he had on!"

"But he touched you!"

Lannet glared at the guard. "He owns the man. If he allows him such liberties, what is it to you?"

The guard unlocked the cage and motioned for the man to follow with a whip in his hand.

Aster got his breath back, "Guard if there is a single extra mark on him, I will come after you. Am I understood?"

The guard started to respond but was stopped by the sergeant, "Don't even think about it. He is a member of the Watch."

The guard's eyes went wide along with the Swordsman slave being escorted.

The sergeant continued, "He could easily cut off your hands and feed them to you on his own, without the help of his pets, but he does have pets and every member in the Watch to help him. Do as you are told and let his slave take a bath while you are at it. He may just forget your face."

The stunned guard scurried out making sure not to so much as raise the whip in his hand.

Aster grinned, "Thanks, Sergeant."

"Not a problem young man. You saved my life when I was assigned to the Barony Patrol. You and your Hawkling friend of yours showed up just after we were ambushed by Harpies just outside of Paws about six months ago."

Aster nodded as he searched his memory, "Yea, your mount fell on your leg. How'd I do on fixing it?"

The man laughed and jumped up and down, showing the leg had completely healed, "You did a fine job! Every bit as good a job as you did on the pair of Harpies trying to finish me off."

Aster grinned, "The ground did most of the work for me. They don't fly well with a broken wing do they?"

"Nope! Your axe snapped her wing and she bounced awfully nice until she hit the tree. The second one, you did on your own though. You still carry throwing daggers?"

"Oh yea. They are my favorite next to my axe."

Pointing at the last man, the sergeant changed the subject, "What about him?"

"Good question." Aster turned to the man who didn't look at all impressed by what he had just heard, "What is your reason for not fighting?"

"Let me out, and I'll be happy to pound your skinny little body into oblivion."

"You had the chance but didn't take it. Why?"

The man glared, "I don't fight for someone who tries to trick me. He wouldn't have set me free even if I had pounded you into a puddle."

Aster shook his head, handed his weapons to Lannet and looked at the sergeant, "Open the cage. He thinks he is tough, let's find out how tough he is."

Lannet raised his eyebrow then shrugged, "Go for it."

The man in the cage snorted, "After I pound you all I'll end up with is a beating from the guards. What do you think I am, Stupid?"

"Yea." Aster answered, "I do."

The man charged as the cage door opened, "I'll kill you."

Aster sidestepped and delivered a kick to the back of the man's right leg. As the man fell, Aster spun delivering an elbow directly to the back of the man's head. The force of the blow shot his head forward into the bars of the cage holding the twins and several other younger boys. All of them jumped back with the impact. A couple even started to cry.

Aster didn't give the guy a chance to recover. He leapt to the side and slammed his left palm into the man's exposed throat. He then backed off, listening to croaking sounds come out of the slave's mouth as he desperately tried to breath properly.

Aster looked at the man then turned to the sergeant, "Toss him back in the cage. I don't want this idiot. I wonder which guild office screwed up and awarded him a Primary Echelon rating."

"He is still yours, Aster." Lannet pointed out; "Do you want to have him auctioned off?"

Aster couldn't help it, he temporarily ignored Master Lannet and turned to look at the twins in the boys' cage, "Sergeant what are they doing in there?"

"Their owner was killed when his coach broke loose and went into a river. The tall lad over in the corner also belonged to him. We sent word to surrounding towns trying to find a relative to take possession."

"Do they know what he owned?"

The sergeant shrugged, "No. We cannot even guarantee we will find anyone related to him. All the messages we send say is we have property including slave or slaves. It is a form letter written in the magistrate's office. If answered, the person will pay a ten percent fee plus an additional five because we sent out runners. No one we talked to thinks the man has any family. Why?"

"What are they worth?" Aster asked clearly thinking over what he had heard.

Lannet could sense the direction of thought and shook his head. "Probably 600 to 700 a piece."

"What about him?" Aster pointed to the big Swordsman who had just started to recover.

The sergeant looked the man over, "He is highly spirited, but in prime condition. He would fetch 2500 easy if he was a little more obedient. As is, 2200 at most."

"So how about bending the rules some?" Aster put on his most charming smile and added in the kind of puppy dog eyes only a child could put on.

The sergeant felt his heart almost melt under Aster's hopeful pleading stare, "What exactly do you have in mind?"

"Well, all three boys are worth less than big tall and stupid over there. If I get the twins outright, we can sell the tall one on the auction stage today and split the money. I get fifty percent you get 25 and the other 25 can be split between all of your guard team. We all make money, I get rid of mister attitude, and we are all happy." Aster again let his eyes go into a pleading mode seeing the sergeant look around nervously.

Master Lannet almost spoke up, but decided to back away. Aster was quite capable of handling himself and making this sort of deal. It was a widely accepted fact such deals went on all the time, and the man knew the Watch would find ways to thank him for his "kindness" if he agreed. If not, Aster would simply have to deal with the Swordsman.

The sergeant sighed after a long moment. "I owe you and our pay is by no means the greatest. Besides, you're correct. Everyone will make out for the most part. Unless you wanted to just sell this guy."

"No, I leave tomorrow and we would need to get word out to bring in people with money before a guilded slave was put up for sale. His price would be too low if I put him on the block today. Not to mention the fact all the people with money will remember him from the arena. As people forget, his price will go back up." Aster replied quickly making sure he did his best sales job.

Part of him hated selling the tall kid, but he needed the money to pay for food and equipment. Handri would be able to say very little if he paid for the food, equipment, and had three extra Swordsmen to help with security. He also figured the extra money he made from betting almost every copper he owned on himself and Pocet could go to buy a wagon. The Watch would certainly find him a good one and help him fill it up with goods he could buy quickly such as wine, weapons, and even get enough equipment to make a traveling forge. He could make extra money and help Handri's caravan even more than he originally planned on.

Aster exited the arena dungeons gripping the ownership papers after only a half an hour. With a complete sense of relief, he took a deep breath of fresh air and looked back to Master Lannet, "You know what I want?"

"Yea, your mind has been spilling the thought to me. I will get on it. Are you sure you can handle these five?"

Aster grinned. "Yes Master. Shade and Dart are here if I need them."

Lannet reached down and scratched both Shade and Dart, "Indeed they are. I will see you before you leave.

"Thanks, Master."

"You are very welcome, Aster." Lannet stated as he waved to the wall. Two of his winged panthers glided down to his side as a third took to the air.

The five slaves watched the display with a shudder. Making matters even worse, Shade checked each out by sniffing them.

Aster waited until he was sure Shade knew all of them. He then turned to the Swordsmen, "This is the deal. I will demand four years of servitude as guards and you will be free with whatever weapons you have with you at the time. I will also pay you two copper a week. Every six months of good service you will get an extra copper a week. However, should I die before your freedom comes; you will remain slaves and be handed over to the Watch.

"Are you serious?" The soft-spoken slave who had knelt in the cage asked in a tone barely more than a whisper.

"I am. The papers I filled out while you were all taking baths and getting dressed stated what I just told you. Master Lannet will deliver the paperwork to Protector's Keep today.

The smaller man looked on with astonishment, "Then I guess we keep you alive!"

The teen merely nodded.

"I hoped you would see it my way." Aster gave a huge smile. "So what are your names and Subfields?"

The shorter man spoke first, "My name is Elnar. I am a step 2 Swordsman and Lockmaster."

"There will be no stealing from anyone without my permission. Clear?"

"Totally," Elnar nodded.

"Excellent." Aster stated as he turned to look at the other man, "What about you?"

"My name is Foxtol. I am only a step 1. My Subfield is Gem Worker."

"I assume you also agree to my terms?"

"Of course I do! You are being far more than fair!"

Aster smiled then looked over to the teenager, "Your name?"

"Dabaff." The young man spoke only slightly above a whisper.

"OK, Dabaff what is your sub?" Aster scowled.

"I am a Vindayin Channeler."

Aster nodded slowly, "Now I know why you do not kill animals unless there is a clear need. I know for a fact all Vindayin Channelers have a second sub. You are either a Healthman or an Outdoorsman. Which is it?"

"I am a Healthman." Dabaff looked a little disappointed to have to give the information out. Many thought the combination of Channeler and Healthman showed a certain lack of intelligence. The Subfields duplicated each other in many ways.

However, Aster being a Healthman himself, understood the differences. A Channeler could heal by touch, which often meant a fast recovery; however, their deity only gave them limited healing ability a day so the Healthman side could then pick up when the other power left off. Also Channelers could make undead creatures flee, at least sometimes, but until they were more powerful, they couldn't do much to mend a broken bone or cure a sickness. Here again the two Subfields could work together without overlapping until they became very high Echelon.

"Nothing to be ashamed of. You will be useful. Do you agree to my terms?"

Dabaff managed a weak nod.

"Good, then the three of you remove your slave collars with your daggers, there is no more need for them. You are warriors and guards. Not slaves."

All three Swordsmen exchanged amazed looks, then drew daggers originally bought for them to kill the boy now telling them to act like free men.

Next Aster turned to the twins, "How old are you?"

Both boys knelt. The one Aster happened to be looking at answered, "We do not know, Master."

Aster could see they were very well trained and were used to being in a servant's role, "What are your names then?"

"Master," the same twin again answered, "we do not have names."

Aster glanced at the two older Swordsmen with a perplexed scowl. Receiving only a pair of shrugs and a shaking of a head from them, he scratched his nose for a moment before asking, "OK, How did your prior owner get the boy he wanted?"

"I always wore yellow, Master. My fellow slave always wore blue."

Aster walked up to the two kneeling boys and examined each closely. "Is there any way to tell you apart?"

"No, Master. We have no scars."

Aster was getting frustrated. Making things even worse the only person to be mad at drowned in the river. "Let me try this a different way. What were your duties?"

"I cleaned the home, served meals and kept my former master's bed warm."

Aster nodded finally getting some sort of real answer. He turned his attention on the other twin, "What about you?"

"I cleaned the guest house, served as the guests' slave and when there was no guest also attend to my former master's personal cleanliness."

"Have either one of you been tested for Field potential?"

"Yes, Master. Our former owner only bought slaves with potential."

Aster shook his head, "Well, I cannot go around calling you yellow and blue, so I want you both to select a name for yourself."

For the first time since he focused on the pair they stopped behaving as slaves. They exchanged glances and looked up. Neither spoke. If anything, they looked terrified to do so. Choices were clearly not something they were used to. Aster knew he would change that very quickly.

"Give me a name!"

The first boy to speak trembled but spoke again, "Molic, Master. If it would please you."

Aster smiled his best reassuring smile, "Molic is a fine name. Do you know which Field your potential is in?"

"We are both Sorcerer potential, Master."

Aster raised an eyebrow. He may have made out better than he first thought. Sorcerers were rare, and they were the only ones who didn't need training to become Primary Echelon. Their magic was totally natural and built no matter what happened. Of course training would speed the process up, but unlike the other Field potential beings whose powers started diminishing without proper teaching once they hit adulthood, Sorcerers were all but guaranteed to be Primary Echelon by human equivalency of age twenty.

Shaking off these thoughts, he smiled at the second boy, "What about you? I still have not heard you give yourself a name."

The sandy haired, blue-eyed boy licked his lips nervously for a moment before finally speaking up; "I liked the name Olinday, Master. One of the boys I took care of had that name."

"Very well. From now on you will answer by your names. Have either of you received any training, formal or informal?"

Olinday spoke up, "Yes, Master. I had two hours a day of spell control training and two hours a day of Ferret Sect Warrior drills."

Aster took a step back. He knew what Conner could do as a Sect Warrior with his hands alone. Ferrets were even worse because unlike all the other styles they didn't have a special sect weapon; instead they used their hands alone. Aster noticed with a bemused grin, his actions were not the only ones. Both Elnar and Foxtol now rested their hands on their cheap bronze swords and Dabaff had his hand on his dagger.

"What about you Molic?" Aster asked quickly to hide at least some of his surprise.

"Two hours of spell control and two hours of Panther Sect Warrior drills, master."

"Master?" Foxtol spoke up.

"Please call me Aster. Your days of being a slave are over as long as your fight to protect me and those around me."

"Sounds good to me. Mind if I ask a question at this point?"

"Be my quest." Aster motioned for him to continue.

"Molic, How many years have you been in training?"


Foxtol looked over to Olinday, "What about you?"


"They are very close to being fully trained." Elnar noted out loud. "But they look too young."

Aster thought the same thing, but had noticed something the men had not when they had left the arena, "You have Elvin blood don't you."

Both boys' heads lowered again, showing some guilt, but Olinday answered, "We were bonded as a blood brother to an Elf who tried to run away. He was then tortured and executed."

Aster shuddered. The practice of using a blood brother ritual for anything other than forging a true brotherhood was one of the most gruesome things done. What their master had done was an abomination of the blood brother rituals. He had used another being to extend the life of other slaves by giving humans an Elf's blood.

Worst of all, the death of the Elf they had been bonded with as brothers would have been felt by both of them. It was no wonder they were absolutely obedient. They knew what it was like to die a horrible death. Since both boys' aging had obviously been slowed, the blood bonding must have been done correctly. This meant they would have known every blow their "brother" had been dealt.

Aster shuddered. As a Healthman he knew how to do the rituals for a blood bonding, but had only done it under the guidance of his teacher a single time. He knew the process itself was so painful it sometimes killed full-grown adults. He had to wonder how kids so young could have lived through it let alone through the torture of their "brother" One question had to be asked, "What happened was not your fault. There is nothing to be ashamed about. But I need to know if you are linked to each other through the blood bonding?"

Molic shook his head for a moment then regained his composure and answered, "Not really, Master. We do have some weak links though. We know which direction the other is and can exchange some thoughts if we are close to each other. Nothing more."

Aster shook his head, every blood bonding was different, but this was not a normal ceremony. He had no idea how such a complex ceremony had been done, but he guessed it was probably very similar to the one the semi-retired Watch member, who was now in the capitol, and the king had undergone with their guard who had been mortally wounded. As a final gift he had a powerful Healthman give the two boys his blood in a Blood Brother ceremony before he died. It was widely known the king was around seventy-five and didn't look a day over thirty. The same held true for the man who was his friend or something when the boys were like ten.

"Very well, I now have names for all of you; let's head over to Protector's Keep. I want to have you all go through testing and get decent equipment."

Elnar couldn't stand it any longer, "Are you really a member of the Watch?"

"I am, but it is a secret. Do not speak to anyone about this unless I clear you. Also remember Protector's Keep is the headquarters for the Watch, so you must stay with me at all times. The Watch will not tolerate having someone they do not know walking around without escort. All the royalty of the kingdom are trained there and we protect them zealously. If you should happen to get separated from me, don't move. Stop right where you are and ask the first instructor you see to guide you. If he says no, stay put until you can ask someone else.

Four hours later Aster pulled his own wagon into the barn holding Handri's equipment. He was accompanied by his five newest acquisitions. He introduced Pocet to everyone before pulling the twins off to the side.

Aster looked at them for a moment. "You both tested very high. You have all the skills you need to get yourselves into Primary Echelon. The Mystic I had look you over says you are human equivalent of nine and his magical testing gives your real age to be seventeen. Basically you are Halfelvin, right down to and including an iron allergy. But I saw how you avoid the iron gates on the way out of the dungeon, so you obviously knew of your acquired weakness

"You will spend a great deal of time working out with Conner to hone both your Sect Warrior skills and spell casting capabilities. He is not a Sorcerer, but he is a Mage and the only spell caster we have. He is also a Griffin Sect Warrior, so learn from him as best you can.

"Your other duties will be to groom my animals and do most of the camp chores. Lastly, I want you to do everything, and I do mean everything, in your power to get close to my little friend over there. He has gone through a great deal and is very afraid. He needs friends. As his owner, I cannot get very close and the two of you are much closer to his age in both looks and in truth. Are your duties clear enough?"

"Yes, Master." Both boys spoke almost as one.

"From now on I am Aster. Do not call me Master." Aster paused to make sure they understood then pointed at the wagon, "Get to work making sure my wagon is ready and do what you can to get my other friend to open up."

Aster walked up to Pocet, "OK it looks like things are handled here. Now how do I explain this to Handri?"

"Simple." Pocet smiled, giving Aster a hug, "We go in and explain how this will make him more money!"

Vondum watched in some admiration as Kandric led Jamon's steed deeper into the swamp. The boy's abilities were incredible. They had traveled now for almost two and a half hours without once having to backtrack. Kandric seemed to have the uncanny knack of being able to pick the best of the solid ground. Once it looked like they were at a dead end, but Kandric jumped down grabbed a few stones and tossed them. By the sounds they made when they hit the snow and mud underneath, he was able to determine a path. His skills were so well honed in the swamp environment, the chosen path got the animal's hooves only slightly muddy before he once again finding a fairly solid path.

The more Vondum watched the small boy, the more he felt his heart strain to keep his hatred he had for people in general fully alive. From the day he set off on his own, hatred had given him the power to survive. Now, however, he knew his vow to never love anyone again had been shattered. Kandric's boyish needs, coupled with his man-like abilities, had burrowed in over the past week. The final straw had been him actually playing with the boy at the swamp's edge. His desire to once again wrestle with a cute boy and hear his laughter troubled him deeply, yet to back away would no longer be possible. As this first barrier broke down, others started to slip as well.

Looking down at Conth, whose exhausted body started to slump once more, Vondum did something completely out of his nature, "Conth."

Conth forced his eyes open and sat back up, "Sorry, Master."

"It is OK." Vondum found himself saying, surprising himself as much as it did Conth. Gently he pulled the boy back against his stomach and chest. "Lean back against me and get some sleep. It looks like Kandric is planning on pushing it into the night, and I see no reason to stop him."

Conth could barely believe the words, but knew better than to argue. Part of him wondered if this was some sort of trick, but Vondum's touch felt different this time. His arm wrapped around Conth, more to protect than to hurt. As he snuggled in a bit to keep the late evening cold away the best he could, he felt Vondum caress his hair and wrap his cloak over him. For the first time since the awful night his caravan had been attacked, he smiled. Within minutes the grateful boy was fast asleep using Vondum as a makeshift pillow.

Kandric found himself equally astonished when he turned around. He saw Conth wrapped up inside Vondum's cloak as the big Warrior Adept held him to make sure he didn't fall. His plan of stopping for the night ended as he saw this. Instead he quickly scanned the area and found a good path continuing onward, "Vondum, I can use my heat vision to guide us for a couple of more hours. My mount seems to be doing OK. How about yours?"

"They got a good rest." Vondum spoke softly while giving Conth a reassuring squeeze as the youngster started to stir. "Don't push too hard, but if you think you have an extra couple of hours let's do it."

Kandric pulled on Jamon's reigns to guide the animal over to the next path. "How are you doing?"

"Getting cold, Master."

"Grab my cloak out of your saddle bag. It will be a while before we stop."

Jamon reached over and almost fell off his mount. Luckily Kandric's reflexes were fast enough to snag and arm and steady Jamon. "Watch yourself. I will not always be so close."

Jamon took a deep breath, "I know Master thank you." Quickly he put on the heavy garment.

"You will find the other part of your meal in the inside pocket. You may eat it."

Relieved, Jamon reached into the pocket and pulled out a hunk of dried jerky. "I appreciate it Master."

"I know Jamon." Kandric replied as he pushed forward. "I know."

Luck or at least Vindayin, goddess of the forest and healing, smiled heavily on Kandric. The new path he selected turned out to be a solid easy to navigate passage. He really had to do very little concentrating so his mind began to wander. Slowly but surely his thoughts drifted back to the night he had spent on the outskirts of the Splitrock Knolls.

Glaster had taken Kandric on his first long trade run of over a week. They had done a great deal of traveling and they were on their way back after a particularly lucrative trade run. Unfortunately, word had spread and Glaster noticed signs they were being followed. Instead of cutting around the swamps and leading them back to the slums, Glaster had decided to loose them, or if necessary take them out. The best place to do so, he decided, was in the bogs where Kandric could give him the most help.

By mid-afternoon of the scorching hot day it became clear their pursuers had every intention to continue the hunt no matter where it took them. Glaster looked down at the then nine-year-old equivalent Kandric and spoke with a bit of disgust, "I did not want you to have to use your skills so early in your life my boy, but combat cannot always be avoided. You are going to be my distraction, but if you feel you have to, go ahead and cast. The men following us will not be leaving this swamp."

The battle quickly turned into a cat and mouse set of skirmishes. Glaster picked the bandits off one by one, sometimes on his own, other times using Kandric as bait. By evening the few remaining bandits realized they had been outmatched from the start and started to retreat into the inner swamps.

True to his word, Glaster did not stop. Once they attacked, he figured their desire to live had ceased to exist. By the time the sun dropped out of view, only a pair of the original dozen were breathing. Glaster cut one off and impaled the man on his scimitar. The other realizing it was do or die, charged.

Kandric reacted. He spotted a half-rotten, floating branch in the muddy pool the man was charging across and cast a Sink spell hoping the branch would trip the man up. What he hadn't realized was rotten waterlogged wood tended to sink, so only a small portion of the huge branch was actually floating on the surface. As it sank out of sight, the part under the water snagged on the man's leg. He tried to pull free, but in doing so twisted his ankle so badly it audibly snapped. While he went down grabbing at his ankle under the water, his garments got tangled in the rest of the branch and he was dragged under.

Glaster pulled Kandric back from trying to help the man as he sputtered, trying desperately to take in air, "He lived as a bandit, let him die as one."

Kandric had never seen a man die slowly before, but continued to watch as the man clawed at his weapon belt trying to free himself. Slowly he lost the battle of trying to hold his head above the water. His body tried taking one last breath, but all it got was a mixture of muddy swamp water and other debris. The man twitched a few more times then the weight of the branch pulled him under. As this happened, it dawned on Kandric he had killed a man. He started to cry.

Glaster picked up Kandric and walked a considerable way. The next thing Kandric knew he was on solid ground looking down on the swamps. Glaster took the upset boy over to a fresh running stream, stripped him and cleaned the mud and grime off. He then took his time as he heated a dagger with a spell and popped off the few leaches which had found their way onto his flesh. Glaster did the same for himself and washed all their clothing, allowing Kandric to think over his situation.

Kandric looked around and saw some of the nastiest bit of swamps he had ever seen below him. Mosquitoes swarmed by the thousands, yet none advanced up the slope toward them. He was mad at Glaster. He felt terrible about watching a man die a slow death. Making things even worse, it had been his spell which had ultimately led to the man's doom. He wanted to yell at Glaster, blame him, but part of him knew the bandit's demise could prevent others from getting hurt. As he struggled with this, he finally made the connection with where he was at. He ran back to Glaster almost screaming.

Glaster lifted the naked boy up and held him, "What is wrong my little Shaman?"

"We are in the Knolls! We have to leave!"

"Relax and get control of yourself." Glaster stroked Kandric's back all the way down to his bottom over and over. "You spent almost twenty minutes walking around here and nothing happened. Why do you come running to me now?"

"But no one comes here!"

Glaster kissed Kandric on the lips, "Am I a no one?"

"No sir!" Kandric furled his brow in confusion.

"Are you a no one?"

"NO!" Kandric shouted.

"Let me see, if I am someone and you are someone, then it clearly shows no one coming here is not quite true." Glaster's eyes twinkled with merriment.

Kandric still wanted to be mad at Glaster for letting the man drown, but he just couldn't. Before he knew it he found himself giggling.

After a playful hour or so of running around nude, Glaster finally pulled out some food to make dinner. But first he turned serious. "Now I know you are mad at me still, but I think you know why I let the man die."

"I do, but we did not have to let him suffer."

"This is where we disagree." Glaster stated firmly as he broke up dry sticks to start a campfire.

"How can it be right to let him suffer like an animal?"

"What if he had managed to get free?" Glaster asked as he tossed some larger sticks over the kindling.

"You would have killed him." Kandric's answer sounded certain.

"No, then I would have given him the chance to change his ways."


"Kandric, what changed your life?" Glaster asked still not lighting the fire.

"When you offered to teach me."

"Why did you agree?"

Kandric thought over his answer carefully, "I guess because I was afraid not to. You had me somewhere far away overlooking some strange place. You also proved to me you have a great deal of money and were willing to buy me. I went with the better of the choices."

"If we had rescued the bandit from your spell, what lesson would he have been taught?" Glaster asked with an approving nod.

"I do not know."

Glaster frowned for a moment as he tried to figure out a way to get Kandric to see where he was trying to go. A new approach came to him "What lesson would it have taught you?"

"Maybe people are nice and I should not attack them." Kandric knew this was more of a hope than a real answer and his voice inflection told the same thing to Glaster.

"What about the next time you are hungry and broke?"

Kandric scrunched up his nose in deep thought. The answer came to him but it took a few seconds for him to admit it, "I guess I would figure I got lucky once so maybe I could get lucky again."

Glaster smiled, "What if you pulled yourself loose while two people watched on?"

"I would know I barely got out alive and others would be just as happy to see me dead as to live."

"You have the answer. I would have told him he could go if he had managed to get loose, but warned him his luck was now gone. He would have then had to find his own way out of the swamps with no food, weapons or gear unless he managed to go fishing for his equipment. If I had saved him, it would have pretty much fallen on me to make sure he got back to civilization. Besides, if he hurt someone else, we would basically be to blame."

"But it was my spell." Kandric cried, "I killed him."

Glaster shook his head, "No you did not. He came after us. You defended yourself. It is not your fault his ankle broke, nor was it your fault his weapon belt got caught in the sinking wood. If either one of those two things had not happened he would not have drowned in a pool of water only a meter deep. Kandric, taking a life should never become easy. The moment it does, you have stopped being a good person."

Kandric found some comfort in Glaster's words. As he wiped away the tears from his face, he realized he could feel the evening chill of the swamp below starting to have some effect; the problem was all his clothing was still drenched from being washed in the stream. The sun didn't have enough time to dry them before it fully sank over the horizon leaving them in humid darkness. "Why did you not start a fire yet sir?"

Glaster grinned, "Because it is time to learn a new Shaman lesson. Come here and sit on my lap."

Kandric could see his teacher was very hard. There was no question where his long thin pole would be going when Kandric sat down. He still had not gotten used to the feeling. At first he knew it would hurt and burn, but then it would settle inside and excite him.

Glaster took Kandric while the boy spread his cheeks. Glaster let out a groan as he ever so slowly lowered the boy onto his manhood. "Open up to me, you can do it."

Kandric first forced his whole body to relax, then let Glaster do all the work. It had taken him months to learn how to properly control his body without letting fear to get in the way, but now it seemed almost natural, until the first bit of pain hit. As always, he clenched up.

And as always Glaster was ready. He held Kandric up, not letting his manhood go any further. "Calm thoughts. No fear. You know I will not hurt you."

"I know, sir." Kandric swallowed hard. He forced the tension out of his body again.

Glaster felt the muscles of Kandric's small buns unclench and he again let Kandric sink down further onto him.

Kandric counted. Four times Glaster held him with his single arm perfectly still until he could loosen up. Finally he felt his butt settle on Glaster and sighed. Within a few minutes all discomfort would be gone. Glaster's caress and kisses helped. He felt loved and knew he was showing love for Glaster as well.

Glaster had no problem waiting for Kandric to get comfortable. Part of him felt very guilty causing the small bundle of joy any discomfort, but he knew Kandric craved the hugs and kisses that followed enough to almost find pleasure in the act. It took a while for both to settle. Once this happened, Glaster looked at the pile of wood sitting in the ring of rocks he had put together.

"Kandric, how does the magic here feel?"

Up till now Kandric had not been calm enough to really take notice. As he did so he felt magic dance around him in wild ways, "It is everywhere!"

Glaster smiled keeping his mind on teaching. He wanted to move his manhood so he could feel more of Kandric's tight warmth, but he held off. "Where does our power come from Kandric?"

"From nature and life. Mother Earth is the base of our magic."

"True, but what about the Spirit Realms?"

Kandric smiled knowing the answer, "All our spells come from the Spirit Realms. They are the focus for our power."

"Touch the ground, feel its power and channel a fire start spell from the Mother Earth through the Spirit Realm instead of just casting the spell."

Kandric tried to do as he was told. He could feel the spell wanting to work, but it just wouldn't burst into being. Over and over he tried to make the magic work with no success. "I need to use my own magic sir. It will not work."

"Could you feel it wanting to?"

Kandric nodded, "Yea, but there was nothing to join the magic unless I do."

"Nothing?" Glaster kept his face neutral.

Kandric gritted his teeth and tried yet again. This time he experimented, knowing from Glaster's tone he had missed something. In this case, it was the something to start the spell. Ten minutes past with no success when he heard Glaster whisper, "Think in reverse my lovely boy, just like the Swordsman taught you at Protector's Keep. Spell casting can be like fighting an enemy; you get so used to charging in head on, you forget there are other methods to handle the wall you now face."

Kandric thought over the lessons he had received only days before at the massive keep on the isle just west of Junsac. The elderly man had told the small class of young students to look for a solution to a superior force, not the problem. The words came back to him as he felt Glaster moving him up and down in a slow and careful way. It took only a moment for the new discomfort to subside. "You do not keep pounding your head into a brick wall hoping to get through it. You look for a door, a way around, or even a way over." The old Swordsman teacher told the gathered class of youngsters, "So why would you fight an enemy you know to be stronger head on?" Kandric, along with many of the other kids laughed as the old man then picked up a brick and started lightly hitting his head against it, "Not very smart, is it?" The man asked with a wink and a grin.

Looking at things in this light changed his whole perspective. He didn't want to make fire; he wanted the wood to burn. All this time he had been trying to combine the extra magic around him but it didn't want to work. Why? Because he was trying to make a spell like he did when he cast. He didn't need to make the spell; he needed the wood to burn. With this new realization, he combined the magic of Earth and Spirit realm of fire at the wood. Instantly the magic merged and the campfire burst to life. As his exuberance calmed, he realized he had not used any of his own magical force yet had basically cast a spell!

Glaster kissed Kandric, "You have opened up a door only a very few spell casters know about. There are areas where you can cast spells without using your own force. They are called Focal Points. Some are not as strong as this place, so you will have to spend a little of your own magical force to make the spell happen, but there are also stronger ones. They will multiply your spell effects and can cause backlash damage. You will know them because your skin will actually tingle.

"On the other hand there are areas of less magic, they are known as Disbursement Points. When you find yourself in one of them, you can gain the extra magic to cast a spell by being in direct contact with Mother Earth and casting from the Spirit Realm where the magic comes from. This way you will be able to cast normally instead of draining extra force just to cast a simple spell.

"Tomorrow I want you to cast to your heart's content before we leave. I want you to learn how to use extra energies when at all possible. Focal Points are too rare to pass up this opportunity to learn my sweet boy."

Kandric thought about Glaster's words as the man continued to move him up and down. After quite some time, Kandric felt an extra burst of warmth up inside him followed by three more. The hugs, kisses, and cuddling following made it all worthwhile. The Outdoorsman side of him continued to be plagued by the feelings of being watched even as Glaster withdrew and told Kandric to get cleaned up. Night passed by with Kandric tucked up safely against Glaster in Glaster's bedroll, but he didn't sleep well at all.

Kandric let the memory slide away as he spotted a place perfect for camping. There was a slight rise, which the wind had basically swept clear, and there was exposed foliage for the mounts. Off to the side a natural hot spring trickled down over small rock formation and pooled into a steaming clear pool. The only thing disconcerting about the place was a circle of stones marking an old campfire. "Stay put." He ordered Jamon as he slid down the side of his steed.

Vondum came up still cradling a sound asleep Conth; "We are awfully deep in the swamps to find a regular campsite."

"I know." Kandric glanced around suspiciously, "The rocks around it are cold though, and I do not see any signs of recent activity."

"Not since the storm." Vondum nodded agreement. "We could all use a warm bath in the morning. The heat from the spring will make the cold a little more bearable as well if we sleep close to it."

"It sure will. Let us get some sleep and give the place a once over in the morning."

"Sounds good." Vondum smiled, "Could I borrow Jamon for a few minutes, so I can have a bedroll set up without having to wake Conth?"

"Sure, I will have him set yours up first." Still Kandric gave the big man a questioning look.

"I know what I said," Vondum blushed, "But I figured I could give him a bit of a break. If I need to, I can always start from scratch."

"Has he slept with you yet?"

"No, tonight will be his first." Vondum smiled, "I'd prefer you though."

Kandric smiled a warm smile, knowing he would enjoy the closeness of the man, while at the same time Conth would be given a full night's sleep. Glaster would still be far preferable, but Vondum seemed to be more loving all the time. Maybe he could get the big man to soften up even more. "So would I. How about we let the brothers sleep together tonight?"

Vondum's heart jumped with joy. "Get Jamon to set up their bed then. We will make our own!"

Almost the same instant Jamon unrolled the bedroll he and Conth would be using, Glaster sat up in his bed in the palace and let out a curse as pain shot through his side. His shaking hands held a scroll made of some sort of animal skin he had never seen before, which in and of itself was a little disconcerting.

The Shaman scroll, dating back from the time before the kingdom of Kronar fractured into small feuding kingdoms and city-states, contained several spell variants, most of which Glaster already knew. However, there were a few new ones. Most fairly useless in the grand scheme of things, but one never knew when a slight breeze could cool things down, so the Fan spell would make a nice addition to his collection of strange spells. On the other hand, he didn't quite understand why someone would develop a magical spell to stop up a bottle or water. Well, the more he thought about it, stopping up a bottle of wine with a magic spell would pretty much eliminate the chance of a cork going bad. Since the spell was permanent until canceled, there actually could be a use for it. Wine did taste better with aging after all.

His curiosity and general hunger for new spells caused him to memorize the Water Stopper spell and a few others. His attention really was caught by accident though. As he rolled up the scroll to move on to the next one, he noticed marks in the edges. As he played around with it, he found they were Shamanistic Runes painstaking carved into the scroll's edge. It took almost three hours for him to get the exact size of the scroll down so all the marks lined up.

What he found himself looking at was a spell he had never heard of before. The name, however, is what really took his breath away. A simple translation would be Total Healing. This is what caused him to sit up.

Mylan came rushing, "Master are you OK?"

Glaster bit back the pain in his side, "Yes young one. I just moved too quickly. But I need your help with something else."

Mylan walked up, "Name it, Master."

Glaster ruffled the boy's hair; "Do you remember when I told you I would not be able to teach you some spells like most teachers do?"

"Yes. You said there are some spells you cannot cast because you only have one hand."

"I also told you and your father I have found ways to teach you the two handed spells in a different way. Remember?"

Mylan nodded, "You said they would hurt me some, but not kill me."

"Correct. You and your father agreed to this, so you knew it would happen. I would like to show you how this is done now, but the power of this spell is massive. You will feel as if you are on fire. I will not make you do this, but I am asking you to."

Mylan didn't like the sound of feeling burned, but he figured it must be very important. "I will do as you ask, Master."

"Thank you Mylan. I promise I will make this up to you." Glaster took a deep breath, "Let me first warn you, this spell is a very old spell I have never before seen. It is a Master Echelon spell and I can only guess at its power or what it will do."

"I get to learn a Mater Echelon spell?" Mylan's eyes gleamed with excitement.

"Yes. You will be my hands. So the spell will flow through you and it will be up to you to direct it."


"It is no different than directing an Autospell because it will be my magic. All you have to do is follow my directions and let the spell go."

"Oh, I think I can point it properly then. Where do I point it at?"


"You?" Mylan stepped back shaking his head. "I cannot Master. If you do not know what it will do I could kill you!"

"Mylan," Glaster motioned for the boy to come back over to the bed, "The spell is a healing spell, but nothing like I have ever seen before. It will not kill me, but it may look like it is hurting me. You have seen an Expert Echelon Shaman fix a broken bone with a spell before?"

Mylan nodded with a worried expression, "Yes Master. When Lylan fell out of a tree our father took us to a Teaching Echelon Shaman to get it fixed. He cried in pain for several minutes as the bone mended."

"This spell may do the same thing, I do not yet know, just be ready for it, and summon the new Royal Healthman if you feel you must."

Mylan took pair of breaths, "So how does this work?"

Glaster squeezed Mylan's shoulder happy to see determination return to the small face, "Now I know I am training a future powerful Shaman!" He praised. He then paused as he got Mylan's help sitting up. "First off take off your shirt."

Mylan pulled off his silk nightshirt leaving him naked. "Now what?"

Glaster took a brief second to gaze over the beautiful sight before him. Part of him instantly longed for his favorite redheaded Halfelf. His mind hoped Kandric had found someone who would love him and give him an occasional hug. This in no way meant he wanted to share Kandric, but he had been gone a very long time and they boy craved attention badly. If it meant Kandric would be happy, he would even thank the man doing so.

Shaking off these thoughts, Glaster looked over Mylan again then he placed his hand in the middle of Mylan's chest. "I will talk you through the hand motions over and over until you get them correct. The second you do I will speak the phrase which sparks the magic. You will then be directly linked through my hand to my magical force. The spell will spill into you. It will burn like crazy so the sooner you get through the hand motions again the faster you can get it out of you. Understand?"

Mylan nodded with wide eyes. "Let us do this, Master, before I get too scared."

Glaster chuckled, "You will do fine." He then guided the young boy through several elaborate hand motions over and over. After the tenth time Mylan had gotten them correct, Glaster spoke a long arcane phrase.

Pain, the likes of which Mylan couldn't have ever imagined, tore through him. He really thought he was on fire from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. The energies swirled as he forced himself to repeat the gestures one more time. Crackling energies burst forth in a multi-colored sparkling form from his fingers as the spell jumped into Glaster's body. Mylan collapsed to the floor as his brain found a way to shut off the pain.

Glaster gasped in agony for a brief second, as the wound on his side disappeared. He then blacked out as the stump of his arm seemed to explode.

Mylan woke up thrashing.

Glaster held the boy and spoke softly, "Calm down my brave young apprentice. You are safe."

Mylan jerked his head around and looked over his body. There were no burns. As he became more aware of his surroundings, he realized he was being held in Glaster's arms, on Glaster's bed. His eyes suddenly went wide as he again looked at the man holding him. "Master you have TWO ARMS!"

Glaster hugged Mylan fiercely, "Yes I do, complete with hands and fingers. Thanks to the brave boy in my lap I again have two arms!"

Glaster kept his grip tight, but part of him wished his restored arm would have first touched Kandric.

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