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The Third Stone
In comparison with Khell, Danar was a vast, undeveloped land devoid of human life except where it gathered in the scattered port cities along the eastern coast. The Slave Route was the only major thorough fare that graced that coast, and aside from small bands of wary merchants, the scattered farmer taking his produce to the nearest city, or the few lone travelers following the road, Theo's little group had seen very little of Danar's population.
Almost three weeks of traveling and no single word had been spoken to any wayfarer they passed on the road. Either they melted into the wood to avoid contact, or those they passed hurried by with hands on weapons and eyes narrow with distrust. It was a savage land that drove man to doubt fellow man so unerringly. They'd seen the remains of the fellowship practiced on the road of Danar a week back in the form of a dozen scattered corpses striped of all but the scraps of clothing, left for the scavengers to pick clean. Arrows had protruded from this bit of rotting flesh or that, a clear testament that those poor travelers deaths had been brought about by brother humans and not the dangerous animal predators that roamed the eastern forests.
As they neared the path that would branch off and lead to the port city of Pu Kan, the road became scarred with the ruts of wagon wheels. Lhoki said there were great orchards to the west and distilleries of cider just outside Pu Kan itself. The apple farmers were moderately well to do, and the distillers were wealthy. Lhoki warned that this stretch of road, traveled by both farmer and distiller was ripe with bandits drawn to the lure of easy targets.
"This is supposed to be a slave route, yet we've seen no sign of slavers yet." Theo asked one afternoon when the rain had dried up and the sky was clear for the first time in many days. Lhoki who trailed behind Wing, munching on an apple he'd found discarded alongside the road cast Theo a caustic look.
"Missing them, are you?"
Theo gave Lhoki a tight smile, refusing to rise to the bait. Lhoki went out of his way on occasion to annoy him. Theo did his damnedest to pretend it never worked.
"No. Just curious."
"In another couple of weeks Corath holds the seasonal carnival. Won't be much trading going on until after that. All the buyers and sellers save their energy for then."
"Slave Carnival." Lhoki drew his brows, sniffing disgustedly. "Corath's the only inland city on Danar, far as I know, all the nomads, the inland tribes that never show their faces on the coast, the pirates that have hidey holes all along the uncharted coasts - - all of them and the big coastal ports come to the fairs to sell or buy slaves. Corath hosts the carnival about four times a year."
"You seem to know a fair bit about it. Your father is a slave trader, you said."
"Was." Lhoki cast Theo a suspicious glance.
"What's it to you?"
"Nothing. Save I like to know the men I have to rely on."
Lhoki's brows rose at that, surprised. "His partner killed him. Long time ago. I was maybe ten."
"Wonderful trade that you can trust your business associates so much."
"Yeah." A trace of a shy, cynical grin touched Lhoki's lips.
"What happened to you?"
"Stuff." Evasive flick of the eyes. Lhoki tossed the apple core away.
Theo didn't push it, the subject obviously being a sore one. He had gleaned enough bare facts to guess that Lhoki hadn't had a easy time of it, his father's murder leaving him with no protection from a slaver brutal enough to kill the man he'd partnered with. Theo wondered if he'd revealed any further facts to Wing, whom he seemed to look up to considerably. If so, Wing kept them to himself, ever the staunch guardian of secrets told in good faith. Wing would no more think of breaking a confidence than he would cutting off a finger.
Urchin came trotting back from the head of the line, slowed when he reached Wing and approached Theo carefully with downcast eyes. Even though Theo had gotten over the majority of his irritation at the boys, he still wasn't entirely pleased by their presence. Stol dealt rather well with his captain's mild displeasure, being older and more sure of himself, but Urchin was unduly repentant, much in the manner of a boy who knew he had badly tarnished the favor of a man he respected. Eventually, Theo sighed at the shuffling of feet and the nervous flicker of eyes, he would have to take the boy aside and explain that nothing had been done that deserved this much anguish on Urchin's part.
"Mr. Collin said to tell you the fork in the road is just ahead."
"Pu Kan." Lhoki said needlessly, since they had all been anticipating reaching that sign post that marked a third of their journey passed. Theo had no intention of making a side trip to that port, being still fairly well off as far as supplies went. The coastal lands of Danar were rich in waterways leading out to sea, and thanks to Lhoki and Wing's forethought in supplying them with fishing gear they had done very well at buffering their food store with fish.
They had more of it that evening, the leftovers from two days past that Collin mixed with dried vegetables and water to create stew. They sat around the fire in small clusters, not bothering with tents since the weather was still dry, talking of the sea and families or friends in Khell ports. Theo sat with a tin of hot tea between his hands listening to Wing recount to Lhoki of the first terrible storm he had experienced at sea. The cutpurse's eyes were wide with fascination, his mouth round at the thought of such fury that the Lady Sea threw at men who dared her waters. Theo recalled the storm Wing spoke of and didn't quite remember it to be so thrilling. His memories revolved around being tossed about below decks in the pitch dark, since the lanterns were extinguished to prevent fire, and being dreadfully sick and scared. He seemed to recollect Wing in similar straits. It was Wing's story though, so he let the big man have his way.
"There's an orchard not far from here." Lhoki said after he'd digested the story and finished pestering Wing with questions about it. "Fresh apples for the taking."
Collin perked up from across the fire. "Fresh apples would be nice. I could spice up our menu with a sack or so of them."
"How not far?" Theo asked.
"Oh, about a half hour that way." He pointed west.
"Might there be farmers about who would take exception to our filching their fruit?"
"Not if we're careful." Lhoki grinned.
It sounded like a beneficial distraction and Theo was bored. After days of uneventful travel he welcomed the chance to do something so daring as to raid an apple orchard. He passed Wing a challenging stare. "Do you think you can move all that muscle about quietly enough not have a band of wrathful farmers down our throats?"
His first mate sniffed disdainfully. "If they're not alerted by all your talk, then I think I'll manage."
Collin gave them an armful of burlap sacks depleted of their original supplies, and on second thought as Lhoki was about to strike off into the night, Theo turned to call Urchin, figuring a midnight orchard raid was as good a way to lighten the boy's guilt as any. Urchin's eyes light up with excitement and he jumped to his feet, while his comrade in disobedience, Stol, looked decidedly envious. That was fine with Theo, since the older boy had shown very little repentance.
They set off through the woods, footsteps muffled by the soggy ground cover. Urchin danced ahead, exuberant at this nocturnal honor, with Lhoki not far on his heels. More wary of these woods and what hid within them, Theo and Wing strode with more regard to the shadows and sounds. One wondered if Lhoki truly knew where he was going, or merely traveled with a vague impression and a hope. Eventually the forest ended at a massive stretch of cultivated land, neatly planted with row upon row of short, twisted trunked apple trees. It would have been impossible to miss the orchards, they covered so much land. For leagues in either direction, a general westward heading would have led to the apple trees.
Lhoki crowed in triumph and he and Urchin galloped out into the field. Theo would have reminded them of the stealthy mission they were one, but in fields this vast and deserted, there seemed little chance of anyone overhearing them. With a fair amount of light heartedness on all their parts they plucked ripe golden apples from the trees, filling four sacks of the sweet fruit. Urchin ended up with a sack almost as big as he was, which he dutifully dragged behind him on the way back, until Wing took mercy and shouldered the boy's sack along with his own.
They reentered the slave road some distance back from where they had set up camp and were trudging down it, bellies full of apples, when the soft sound of muffled hoof beats cut through the night, approaching at a good clip from behind.
"Riders." Lhoki hissed, ready to jump into the brush at the side of the road and hide. Theo shook his head, not willing to let a band of unknowns ride upon his camp unawares. Looking entirely doubtful the cutpurse lowered his sack to the ground and edged towards the side of the road anyway.
Within moments the first of a large group of riders cantered into view. The leaders pulled up as they came upon land bound travelers, and soon a mulling cluster of smallish horses clogged the path. The riders were a miss-matched collection of men, hollow cheeked and lean, with ragged, often patched clothing and openly displayed swords and knives. Not the most promising of men to cross paths with, Theo thought, glancing at Lhoki to see his reaction. The young man's face had gone closed and wary, his hands disappearing within his tunic after the hidden weapon Theo knew he kept there.
"What've you got there?" One of the riders leaned back in the saddle, one hand resting casually on the hilt of the short sword at his belt.
"Nothing but apples." Theo patted the bag at his knee. "But, I appreciate the interest."
He felt Wing move at his back, a subtle shift of weight and saw the slight movement as the eyes of the men on horseback followed the big man's motion. If they were bandits and meant them ill will, they would go for Wing first, he being the most visible threat. He tried to count the number of shadowed bodies on the dark trail. There might have been eight or ten men that he and Wing had to deal with. He discounted Urchin as much of a help altogether, and had no notion of what use Lhoki would be in a fight. How far down the trail were his men? Would they hear the sounds of conflict if an attack was precipitated?
"Apples? Now why don't I believe that?" The rider laughed back at his comrades, causing a scattering of chuckles to drift back out of the press. The sound of some of them guiding their mounts off the trail and into the wood to either side of them was clear enough indication that they were up to no good.
"Lets see what you've got there."
"You've an interest in apples, do you?" Theo kicked his sack over and a few fruit rolled out onto the dark path. The rider peered down, frowning.
"Well, then, it looks as if you have apples after all. Guess we'll have to see what else you've got that would interest us." The man made a motion of his hand, and six of his fellows dismounted and stalked out from behind him, eager grins on their faces, naked blades in their hands.
Urchin let out a little moan of fright from somewhere behind Theo and Wing. Theo couldn't look that way, couldn't take his eyes from the predators before him. Wing drew his sword and Theo didn't look that way either, though most of the bandits did and he saw a general shift in Wing's direction.
It was an unspoken tactic they had practiced all their lives. Wing would always seem the greater threat, would always draw the attention to himself and give Theo the opportunity to come upon foes unawares. He took a step back to give Wing a bit more space to use his heavier blade.
"Urchin." he said softly, oh so calmly. "Run back up the trail."
"You think we won't find him when we finish with you?" One of the bandits sneered. Theo didn't grace that with an answer, he listened for the sound of Urchin's feet pelting down the road.
Two of them charged at Wing simultaneously, jabbing with blades at the big man's face and mid-section. Wing jumped back, swinging his own sword in an arch that his attackers avoided, but forced them back several steps. One of them stepped back and into Theo's blade as he drew and sliced in one smooth motion. First blood was his. He did not wait to see if his man went down before slashing out a brigade that came from his other side. His blade slapped the other's down and with a speed that his opponent could not match, he brought the edge of his sword across the man's face and neck. Blood gushed, enraged cries went up around them at the surprising adversity.
Wing was movement at his right that he only peripherally paid heed too, well assured that his friend could take care for himself, but he chanced a glance for Lhoki, not so sure of that one. The cut purse crouched in the brush at the side of the path, one dagger held by the tip of the blade in one hand, another clutched by it's hilt in the other. One of the horsemen off to the side made a rush for the road, and the young man's hand twitched. The dagger appeared a moment later protruding from the eye of the rider, who subsequently toppled from the wild eyed horse.
Wonderful. Lhoki moved up a notch in Theo's estimation. The leader of the bandits came at him screaming, sword held high, urging his horse to run Theo down. Theo decided to oblige the man and instead of dodging the horse and giving the man a fair shot at hacking him with the sword he stepped boldly into it's path, waving his arms and yelling. The animal, having a good deal more sense than it's rider balked, back legs skidding under it's body as it frantically attempted to avoid running over a noisy human. Theo grabbed the reins and jerked the animal's head to the side, further upsetting it's balance, causing it to loose footing entirely and thud heavily to the ground. The rider screamed as his leg was crushed under the weight of the horse. Theo slammed a kick at his head, effectively silencing his complaints as the horse scrambled shakily to it's feet.
An old and well used sailor's brawling cry went up and from up the path the bandit's worst nightmare appeared; a tense, aggravated bunch of landbound sailors whose greatest joy during liberty was engaging in at least one good, bloody brawl. The thieves hardly even saw them coming, so involved were they in attempting to take down a mere two seamen.
It was over in astonishingly short order and the path and the woods around it were filled with hard breathing men, a fair collection of bodies either dead or unconscious and a good number of unnerved horses. One of the animals even made so bold as to shuffle over and bodily push Theo out of it's way as it bent it's head to investigate the fruity contents of one of the sacks. Theo laughed. He leaned back against the horse, which was intent enough in munching apples not to mind and chortled. Men of his looked his way, half grinning themselves at the release of pent up frustrations. Collin walked his way, looking disheveled and only half dressed. His feet were bare.
"I told you apples, not horses."
"Oh, but horses are so much better and we've got apples to feed them." he laughed even harder at that. Collin shook his head at him, looking about at the carnage, calling out to see if any of their men were injured. One of the junior bosmen had a slash on his forearm, but it was not a bad wound. It would wait till they reached their campsite for Collin to tend.
Theo had the horses gathered up, and did a little scavenging of his own, looting the pockets of the dead men, who'd have done the same and more to them. They were a poor lot, with only a handful of silvers among them, but it was more by far than Theo could claim.
"We could make a fair profit if more bandits tried to prey on us." he commented to Wing, mentally calculating the take. Nine horses, gear and tack included, each with saddlebags most likely full of road rations, and a small pouch of silver. "This is the best luck we've had since we've been in this cursed land."
"You worry me sometimes, Theo." Wing grunted.
Theo grinned at him, tossing an apple up and snatching it out of mid-air. Wing might have a valid point, but it didn't change the fact that their circumstances, with the addition of those horses had just changed drastically. A journey that might have taken months was now reduced to weeks and the sooner he could get to that stone and keep Tiana from ever using it, the happier he would be.
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