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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn


Chapter 16


"Another storm is brewing." Wing pointed to the north where the horizon bled charcoal gray into the mornings pale clouds. It was the season for storms. A bad one to be sailing near any but the most familiar of shores. They usually made southern runs this time of year, avoiding the heavy winds and unpredictable storms that struck the western coast of Khell. Sarrageta, Vol and Parmale. Agbar used to be included in that run, before Theo's little misunderstanding with the powers that be.

Spirits help him, he loved Theo, but ill fate was drawn to him like ants to honey. Folk either adored Theo or hated him and the former inevitably found misfortune at the association. Look at them now, in the midst of this, when they could have been sailing the calmer waters of southern Khell. Wing was not a suspicious man, not at heart, but through the whisperings of his own men and too many incidents to easily recalled, he had the niggling suspicion that some curse of bad luck hovered around his captain. Not that such a thing would sway his loyalty, in fact it only made him more determined to stick close to Theo in some vain effort to shield him from it, but it made him regret not having spoken to the old sorcerer. It could hardly have hurt to see if such a thing were possible and if so find a remedy.

Collin he wouldn't ask, even though the man had surprising volumes of arcane information stored in his head. Collin was too full of supposition and gossip for Wing to trust with such a sensitive topic. It was all he needed, for the crew to start loosing faith in their captain.

"It might pass us by." Collin said, walking along the cliff ahead of Wing. A handful of crew followed along, happy to be out of the strange village of children. A pair of gulls swooped and tilted in the air currents, their cries swept away by the wind. The edge of the cliffs was ragged and littered with loose rock. It stretched along to the west as far as the eye could see, only broken in the far distance by the swelling rise of land that he supposed to be the hills they had crossed to reach the children's village. Beyond that would be the stone forest. He followed the ridge of the hills inland wondering how far was the pass they had used to cross.

A glint of light caught his eye. Sun reflecting off of glass or metal. He squinted, step faltering, but the light was gone, absorbed by the shadows.

A thin voice, half swallowed by the wind, called his name from behind. He turned, as did his men and watched a distant figure lope towards them. Lhoki, breathing hard and staying well from the edge of the cliff stumbled up to him. The young man rested for a moment, hands on knees, before straightening. His grin was self-satisfied and made Wing uneasy.

"What?" Collin demanded, before Wing could bring himself to ask.

"Thanks to me, they're going to show us where their stone idol is. Theo said to tell you he's going to see it now."

"By himself?" Wing snapped.

"They wouldn't take more than one. Sacred place and all that."

Wing swore under his breath and started back towards the village. Lhoki looked at Collin helplessly. "What? That's what you wanted, right?"

Collin was too busy trotting after Wing to answer.


Shimal walked right to the cliffs over looking the sea, which Theo hadn't expected. The boy did not even pause as he took a step over the edge and began to scramble down what was obviously a hidden trail. Theo caught his breath, watching as the other three followed suit, then peered down at a path no wider than his shoulders that led steeply downward.

When Theo didn't immediately make a move to follow, Shimal paused in his descent to peer up at him. The boy's face held almost a taunting curiosity, no doubt wondering if Theo had the guts to follow, but he said nothing. Theo thought a number of unsavory things about the boy, then stepped down onto the narrow ledge. It was certainly no worse than his escape from Tiana's fortress. He wasn't even drunk. Then the winds hit him and slammed his body against the jagged rock of the cliff face, and his feet lost purchase at the offset of balance.

Spirits. He cursed out loud and grabbed for anything and found sharp rock that cut his hand, but saved him a deadly fall.

So. The winds were worse by far smashing against the solid face of cliff than they were above. The rotten children could have warned him. They climbed with great alacrity before him, not looking back. They thought their youth made them more agile and fearless than an old man of twenty and five. He'd love to see any one of them climb rigging during a raging sea storm.

He knew the wind for what it was now, and adjusted his balance. He wasn't fool enough to hurry to catch up, but he did not fall behind either. Down they went. Fifty feet. A hundred. The sea became more distinct below. The rocks she crashed against more recognizable threats.

Ahead of him some twenty yards, Shimal disappeared. Theo blinked, wiping hair from his eyes, thinking the boy had fallen. But no form plummeted towards the frothing sea. The second boy in line, slowed, then shifted to the left against the cliff face and was gone.

A cave. It must have been the entrance to a cave opening in the cliff face. The next boy disappeared and this time Theo was close enough to see the darker shadow along the cliff face that hid the mouth of a cave. Not a large opening by any means, no more than a few inches higher than his own height and barely wide enough for two men to stand side by side. The narrow trail continued on past the cave opening some twenty feet, then merely ceased, chopped off abruptly as if by the hand of the spirits. Uneasy thought, considering he was going to see the stone imprisoning a particularly dark and powerful spirit.

He paused a moment, before stepping into the darkness of the cave mouth to importune more benevolent entities that the stone actually be there and this not be a colossal waste of time. He moved off of the trail into the cave and the first thing that assaulted him was the smell. It stank of lichen and mildew and some other undefined rot. The wind was sucked into the cave with passion, and the sheer force of it's howling persistence pushed him forward a few unwilling steps into the unknown. The floor was solid and level, offering no dangerous drops. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. The boys dim forms occupied the shadow with him. The lot of them stood watching him and one might almost think there were gleams of malicious pleasure in his unease in their eyes. But it was more than likely a trick of the sparse light.

"It's here?" he asked because their silence unnerved him.

"It is."

"Is there a torch?"

"Is your eyesight so poor?" Shimal asked disdainfully.

"He's old." One of the others explained the affliction.

Theo chose not to remark. Shimal moved to the mouth of the cave next to where Theo stood and picked a stick with cloth wound about it's tip. He crouched before it, shielding it from the wind, and struck flint to stone repeatedly. The rags were well oiled and caught after several tries. The boy knelt a while longer, shielding the torch until it burned heartily. When he stood up with it, light was thrown into the small cave. It was narrow, shallow in height, and long, as if it were a fissure leading deeper into the cliffs. Indeed it was a passage, for it disappeared into darkness ten feet beyond the scope of the light, and there was nothing but flat floor and strangely smooth walls here.

Shimal walked into the depths, and the others followed, like bugs drawn to the light he held. Theo kept close, not wishing to be abandoned in the darkness, for as soon as they turned the slight bend the light from the cave's mouth was utterly swallowed. He wanted to ask questions. How far did the cave extend? How had they found it? Was the mouth in the cliff face the only opening? How had the stone been carried down that treacherous path? But Shimal did not seem willing to divulge information without goading and Theo did not see the wisdom of goading the boy in this particular situation.

The narrow cave opened to a more spacious chamber. Several uneven steps led down to a smooth floored cave marked here and there by the upthrust finger of stalagmites. On the floor around the walls were baskets and dried flowers and trinkets, obviously offerings to the children's spirit god. Shimal passed through this chamber without pause, heading towards another low opening. They all had to bend to clear the threshold and for several claustrophobic yards Theo walked bent almost double before the ceiling rose abruptly a good ten feet above his head. Conical deposits hung like spears from the rooftop, dripping moisture from their tips which gathered in small pools on the floor. He stopped, amazed at the display, staring up at the ominous shapes made by the flickering light of Shimal's torch. He hardly noted the innocuous stone standing in the center of the floor. It was hardly worth notice in comparison to the stalactites suspended from above. It was nothing more than a rough hewn piece of black stone, standing roughly his height, maybe a bit shorter, no bigger around in girth than an amply endowed woman. He might not have noticed it had the boys not formed a circle around it, none standing closer than a body length from it, and stared with reverent affection at it's chipped and carved surface.

He came up behind Shimal and studied it. It was covered with carvings. Runes and inscriptions and relief's. In the unstable light it was hard to make out the patterns, but the main one in the center, though old and worn, seemed very much like the one Pyphin had drawn out for him.

This was it? This was the infamous Second Stone? The sacred runestone that imprisoned the dark spirit of Kerisai? Not very impressive. Other than the general stench of the caves and the chill of sun starved, moist air, he felt no rush of anticipation. No tremor of apprehension over the dark forces that resided trapped within this stone. He felt rather silly for expecting them.

The boys were rapt in their adoration of the thing, lips moving in silent prayers or chants or whatever adjuration they used to petition the good will of their supposed god. He had never found a thing to be so devoted to, save his ship and truth be known, found the traditions and customs of religion to be tedious. The worship of the spirits and the observance of holy days was more an inconvenience than a salve for his soul.

He edged around the perimeter of the cave, in the shadows where Shimal's torch strained to reach, considering the stone and how easily he might return to this obscure cave and invoke master Pyphin's ward. To navigate the narrow path down the cliff face at night would be treacherous.

His boot hit something too light to be a rock. Something that tipped over and wobbled unevenly, it's smooth yellowed surface indent with familiar hollows and craters. He blinked down at it, for an instant wanting to believe it was something other than that which his eyes and mind insisted it was. No other form resolved itself. It was a skull. A clean, perfect skull detached from the rest of the skeleton it had surely once belonged to. His gaze drifted along the edge of the wall, where shadow was thicker still and other odd shaped debris lay in obscurity.

Shimal was looking at him. The other boys were. There was a disconcerting expectancy on their torch lit faces that combined with bones and rune stone, began to make Theo decidedly uncomfortable. He dearly wanted to know whose bones these were and why they were scattered about the floor of the Stone's chamber, but to ask at this time, with the feral looks on the boys faces seemed unwise. As if drawing their attention to bleached bones would give them a yearning to add his to the lot.

He smiled his most sincere smile and stepped away from the bones. "Well, it seems you're right. This is a sacred stone. I'll make certain Lhoki apologizes for his doubt." He waved a hand towards the way they'd come, an indication that he wished to leave. They looked at him. Shimal shook his head slightly.

"This is not a place for elders. It is so written. Elders pollute the sanctity of the god." His voice was a flat monotone, as if he were reciting something painfully memorized.

"All right." Theo said carefully. "Then perhaps I should go."

"Not just here." Shimal added. "All the land to the forest of stone belongs to the god. All the earth, all the sky, all the air cringes at the presence of elders. The god wills that the taint be cleansed."

Theo glanced once at the silent, battered stone. It was an innocuous seeming thing, to demand such rituals. "All right. We'll take our leave as soon as I can gather my men."

Shimal held the torch a little higher and the boys to either side of him drew the primitive knives at their sides. Theo cursed silently, hand slipping reflexively down to where his sword should have been, but wasn't. He took a step backwards, glanced quickly about the walls and found the dark entrance to another passage or cave at the end of the chamber.

He sprinted towards that dark retreat and they bolted after him. Into darkness only faintly lit by the luminance of the torch Shimal held in the other cave. He stumbled a few yards forward and immediately his feet tangled in piles of lightweight, scattered objects. He twisted, flailing for balance, went to one knee, painfully and his hands found innumerable smooth, rounded objects as he sought purchase on the floor. He knew what they were even without the benefit of light. Bones. A great many more bones than what he had seen outside.

Spirits. He cringed back, then wrapped his fingers around a long, thick bone, a thigh bone most likely and scrambled to the side as the slapping feet of the boys sounded behind him. They came in, Shimal with the torch at the rear, his light only serving to highlight their forms.

Theo sprang up, swinging the leg bone with both hands and connecting it solidly with the skull of the boy closest. The boy went down with a clatter of knife and the thud of consciousness flesh. Theo brought the bone back, one handed and smacked the wrist of the second boy who raised his knife hand to ward off the blow. Crack. The boy yelped, the knife dropped from numbed fingers.

Shimal and the third boy were more wary. Shimal had a knife in one hand the torch in the other, the other boy sidled along the wall trying to get behind Theo. Theo waved the bone at him warningly, his free hand going for his own knife.

In the flickering light this smaller chamber was fully revealed. He stood amidst bones. Hundreds, thousands of bones, piled like so much flotsam about the floor. Some of them were yellowed with age, others still had scrapes of flesh clinging to their surface. The smell was insidiously rank. Spirits, what had these kids been doing for generation after generation. These could not be merely the bones of travelers that happened to make the difficult and pointless pilgrimage to Kathari Point.

"So how old do you have to be to considered an elder?" He asked of Shimal as the boy shifted and swayed before him, waving the knife back and forth as if he were attempting to charm a snake. Shimal said nothing.

"These are your brothers and sisters and parents here, aren't they? You're pretty old yourself, Shimal. You'll join them here soon enough, won't you?"

Shimal drew back his lips in a snarl. "It is an honor, but you won't know it. Your bones will rest at the bottom of the cliffs for the waves to smash."

The boy whose wrist Theo had smashed edged forward towards his discarded blade. Theo waited for his fingers to touch the hilt before kicking out and smashing the boy in the face with his boot. The third boy rushed him, knife held high. Stupid way to attack a man with a knife, when that man had survived as many brawls and tavern fights as Theo. He whirled away from the kick and knocked the knife hand up and away, embedding his own blade up under the ribcage of the boy. He jerked it out before the blood could flow over his hand, pushed the body away and faced Shimal who was staring at his downed comrades with grim frustration.

"Maybe," Theo suggested softly. "It just wasn't meant to be this time. Maybe it's time for your god to have a change of heart." With the other three on the floor, Theo walked towards Shimal. The boy took a step backwards. He was not, it seemed a stupid boy, merely one who had had numbers on his side and now did not, and wisely chose not to engage the force that had divested him of his allies. He dropped the torch and with a rapid movement of his feet rolled it until the flames died.

Theo let out a despairing yell and lunged for the boy and torch hoping to save the last bit of flame, but it was too late. The cave plunged into deepest dark. Theo changed course, not wishing to encounter a welcoming knife in the blackness. He heard the soft slap of Shimal's feet retreating across the stone floor. Theo crouched, the basest, foulest curses he knew trooping through his head. He uttered nothing out loud not wanting to give away his location should Shimal still be about. But, after a few moments he became convinced that the boy had well and truly fled.

The darkness was complete, with nothing but the stench from the bone room behind him and the distant, slow drip of water to break its dominance. There had been a time when it would not have bothered him. But now he imagined malicious, intrusive little spirits skulking through the void. One could only assume that the spirits attracted to this place where the stone of Kerisai itself sat were of a particularly loathsome nature. He felt the tickle of something across the back of his neck, and started. Wiping a hand across his skin there was nothing there.

He shut his eyes and found a similar darkness. Took a breath and started across the room in the direction he recalled the passage leading out to be. His outstretched hand came into contact with stone. It was worn and pitted and slightly warm to the touch. Some slight spark of static traveled across the skin of his palm and he jerked his hand back as if he had been burned.

What he touched had not been the wall of the cavern and he shuddered to think what spirits he might have offended by such a casual desecration. The stone seemed so much more imposing a thing in the pitch of dark than it had in the light of Shimal's torch. He sidled around it and shuffled finally to the wall. This stone was cool and slightly damp, as a cave wall should be, and he blindly trailed his fingers along it until he came to what he hoped was the passage leading out. He bumped his head on the low ceiling and for several painful breaths bright lights broke through the veil of utter blackness. He'd had to stoop coming in. He recalled that now, too late to save a bump on the forehead. He stooped and worked his way up the slight incline. The floor leveled out and he cautiously probed above him to see if it was safe to stand up.

The air was fresher here and mixed with the smell of dried flowers. There had been numerous offerings laid on the floor of the outer chamber. On the other side of this cavern would be the stairs leading up and out to the cave's opening in the cliff face.

As quickly as he could he made his way across the floor. What if Shimal had already reached the top and was inciting his tribe of children to attack Theo's men? What would any of them do, if a child like Thera came at them with a weapon she was divinely driven to use? He veered around a rock formation coming up from the floor, tread through a ankle deep pool of water and found the opposite wall. His fingers found a crevice that widened to a passage. He edged into it, smooth floor and walls making progress easy. It turned sharply and began to angle down. He hesitated, not remembering if the passage in had sloped upwards. He seemed to recall a downward slant. And hadn't there been rough hewn stairs of a sort leading into the first cavern?

He stood for a moment, confused, breathing hard and hating this darkness with every ounce of his being. A twinge of panic was beginning to creep over him. Panic of being utterly adrift without a single point of light to navigate by. He took a few calming breaths and realized the air smelled stale and mildewy. There was no taint of salt air flowing through this tunnel. This was not the right passage. He pressed his back against the wall and gathered wits that wanted badly to scatter, then turned and slowly made his way back down the tunnel.

He found a second passage close to the one he'd taken my mistake and this one had the raised lip of stone steps leading up. He took the steps carefully, feeling with his hands in case any low ceiling might present itself. He heard the cry of a boy echoing through the caves behind him. One of the two he'd only knocked unconscious was awake. All he needed was a frantic, angry boy barreling into him from behind. He hurried his steps and the passage leveled out. Ahead a faint grayness broke through the black. The bend of the tunnel.

He pelted forward, careless of his step into daylight around the curve of rock. There was the small cave and the ragged opening through which gray sky beckoned. He said a silent prayer to the benevolent spirits and went carefully to the mouth, aware that Shimal might be waiting without to push him off his balance or rain rocks down upon him, either happenstance a sure way to send him over the side and down to the rocks below.

But there was no boy, not even at the highest part of the trail. Theo sheathed his knife and thrust himself out onto the trail. The wind hit him. He put a shoulder to the cliff and climbed. It was easier going up than down. He knew his goal and was desperate to reach it.

It was not until he reached the top of the cliff and stood on solid ground that he smelled the smoke or heard the cries. To the west thin trails of smoke rose, diluted by the strong ocean breeze. He threw caution away and ran towards the village, just pelted headlong towards the noise and the smell with a sick dread clutching his heart.

The huts were obscured in a haze of smoke, several burning fiercely. Bodies ran here and there, confused motion. A child screamed and that scream was cut short. He reached the firepit outside of the grouping of huts and a young girl ran out of the smoke, a long bladed, skinning knife in her hand. He faltered not even going for his own knife. She reminded him of little Thera. She might have been Thera's older sister or cousin the resemblance was so strong. A horse and rider plunged past the barrier of smoke and in two equine strides reached the girl and cut her down. The horse didn't stop, but came for him, the rider on its back armored in brown leather and polished helm. Not one of his. Most assuredly not one of his men.

Theo leaped the remains of the smoldering fire pit and the horse crashed through it, scattering sparks and ash. He rolled, clutched at his knife which was damned little protection against an armed and mounted enemy and bolted for the protection of the huts. He plunged into smoke and chaos. The fire from a nearby hut licked at his back. There was the clash of metal on metal, the screams of horses and children and men. Spirits what a miserable combination of sounds. A boy ran at him, wild eyed and desperate to kill anything remotely adult.

He did not want to kill more children. It ached to contemplate such slaughter, but the boy was determined. Theo knocked the blade aside and slammed the hilt of his own against the boy's temple, but the child only staggered and kept coming, leaping at Theo like a wild thing, nails raking, teeth reaching for any soft spot to take hold of. Theo staggered down, beset by an armful of lithe, boundless frenzy. All he saw of the man who cleaved his ax into the child's back was a dark silhouette in the dim light. But he felt the bone deep impact as the blade hit between narrow shoulders, driving the child into his chest, almost piercing his own breast. What he held then was limp and wide eyed in sudden and unexpected death and he could barely take his eyes from that shocked face when the ax-man jerked the weapon free and made to bring it down again, this time onto Theo. With dead weight on his chest and himself flat on his back, he had little option but to use what weapon he already had in hand. He flung the knife as best he could at the awkward angle he was in. It was a miserable throw, the blade stuck in the underside of the man's arm, where leather cuirass left vulnerable flesh exposed. It served its purpose. The man howled and released his two handed grip on the ax, while he grasped at the blade in his flesh. Theo pushed the body off him and rolled up against the ax-man's legs, going for the small knife in his boot, coming up and jamming it deep between the side seams of the leather armor.

Spirits, who were these invaders? The ax-man staggered off, clutching his side and Theo darted away. Two children attacked a man twice their combined weights. A group of men struggled by the door of a burning hut. Some of the men he recognized as his. One of the boson's mates and young Stol. He went that way, seeing allies. only before he could reach them, one of the attackers knocked Stol backwards and plunged a sword in his gut, then wrenched it free as the boy crumpled to his knees.

With an enraged cry he slammed into the man who'd murdered Stol, bringing his blade around to slash an unprotected throat. He retrieved the sword before the man hit ground. A solid, weighty blade that he used to gut another man who was trying to butcher his boson's mate. His crewman stared at him in dismay, then down at the boy. Theo dropped to one knee, hand on Stol's shoulder, but the boy was dead. In the midst of the noise and smoke, with people running and fighting around him, he felt sick and lightheaded.

"What happened?" he asked hoarsely. But the boson's mate only pulled him up frantically and gestured at a trio of ghostly riders bearing the hazy aisle between huts, hacking and slicing ruthlessly at any living thing in their path. They ran behind the shelter of the closest hut and a child rushed out at them, and buried a hatchet behind the ear of his crewman. Thera looked up at him, bloody faced and beyond human reason. She knelt over a man he'd known for years and yanked desperately on the stone hatchet which had lodged in bone.

Theo gagged. He stumbled away from her, the sword a numb, foreign thing in his hand. He tripped over a body and skipped a few steps to regain balance. There were too many bodies littering the ground. The smell of burning flesh now mixed liberally with that of thatch and wood. The cries were lessening. Spirits, was everyone dead or dying?

"Wing!" he cried, out of desperation and fear. "Collin?!"

He moved out from behind the hut and a heavy equine shoulder almost bowled him over. The rider wheeled the horse, sword up, helmed face obscured. Theo took off the other way, leaping over a collapsed section of wall and hoping the horse would shy at doing the same. He wanted out of the village, but there was nowhere but the cliffs that a man on foot could find shelter before a horse could run him down. And the cliffs offered no escape and little shelter and housed besides that horrible stone. Thinking of the stone made him recall the rune master Pyphin had made, in his gear in the hut he'd shared with Thera. Burning no doubt. But stone wouldn't burn. He had to get that rune.

"Capt'n." A shrill voice cried out. A terrified, pressed voice from a boy who ran down the alley between huts with a man after him. A man so close the edge of his sword almost grazed Urchin's neck. Not another boy in his care. He would not see another one of his slaughtered.

"Down." Theo commanded in a voice that brooked no disobedience and Urchin obligingly dove to his stomach, skidding a few feet from momentum. The man behind him overshot the prone boy by several feet, greater weight not as willing to stop so quickly. But he saw more prosperous prey in Theo, who beckoned him forward with one hand and brandished the sword with the other.

They danced, the invader a clumsy, heavy partner who relied more on his armor to protect him and his strength to drive a lesser man back. Theo was agile enough to avoid getting his toes squashed and angry enough to actually relish blood on his hands. He came up under the other's guard and the leather armor was not enough to stop the tip of a sharp sword from sliding in.

He watched the man hit the ground, crying out in pain, gloved hands clutching at dark blood welling through the rent in armor. Urchin scrambled to his feet, ran to Theo's side, incoherent and sobbing. The whole of the world had turned static with a haze of chaos that Theo could not comprehend. The cries of the dying or the victorious pierced the thick air. Where had these dark riders come from? Bandits come to rape a village that held little in the way of wealth, or savage nomads who needed no reason to kill, they simply did it because the sight of blood excited them. So the stories went.

He pushed Urchin ahead of him away from the loudest clamor of slaughter. The air was clear to the north, or as clear as the air ever was this close to the cold waters of the Desharr. Gray stone ground against gray sky, broken by the clustered shapes of stone monoliths. A figure broke from the cover of those stones, running and another after it. Urchin squealed, beginning to dart away and Theo almost followed suit. Then he recognized the second man.

Collin. And behind him Wing. Others of his men following, weapons in hand. But not enough. Not nearly enough.

He took two steps towards them when an arrow whizzed over his shoulder and thunked into the chest of the man directly behind Wing. A scream and the seaman fell, clutching uselessly at the shaft protruding from his chest.

The thunder of hooves behind him and Theo whirled, and found a ragged line of riders, several of whom held bows emerging from the haze of smoke behind him. The helmed rider he had avoided pressed through the ranks, sword held across his saddle, one hand half raised to stay the fire of his archers.

"If you want to die, by all means resist." His voice sounded hollow and distant through the faceplate of his helm.

Theo stared at him, panting, gripping his sword so hard his fingers hurt. He felt the presence of allies at his back. Heard the mutterings of defiance from his crew, and envisioned clearly and dreadfully, each of them cut down without mercy.

"And that won't happen, if we lay down arms?"

The helmed heard dipped in agreement. He sensed a smile behind the shadows of the faceplate.

"Don't believe him." Lhoki gasped from the relative safety of Theo's remaining men. There was damned little choice but to believe him, Theo thought dismally. They were certainly dead if these men were given the order to finish the slaughter. The men behind the helmeted leader shifted in impatience, gripping weapons, those whose faces were visible were strained with battle frenzy. Only a word, a signal from the faceless man would send them at the outnumbered sailors.

Theo dropped his sword. It hit the ground with a soft thud at his feet that was echoed by the indrawn breaths of the men behind him. "Put you weapons down." he said softly, without turning.

There was a low grumbling, the start of contention, quickly quelled as Wing's voice cut through their arguments.

"You heard the captain. Drop your weapons, men."

Theo didn't turn even then, waiting, watching the mounted leader, taking in the relaxed posture, the immaculate tunic and armor. This was not a common bandit. This was a man that practiced in wealth. One finely gloved hand lifted, a signal to his men. They spilled around his horse and surrounded Theo's company.

Rough hands were laid on him, jerking him forward and away from the men behind even as others of the marauders made certain that his men were truly disarmed. When they were satisfied he had no hidden weapons upon him, they pushed him towards their lord and held him at the man's knee.

"What gain to slaughter a village of children? There are no riches here and certainly we have none." He dared the question out of a sense of panic, when silence might have been the wiser course.

Laughter echoed behind the faceplate. "It is not riches I'm after." He pushed the visor up and a familiar, tattooed face looked down. The eyes did not mimic the mirth of his laughter. They were cold and bleak as only the eyes of a slaver could be.

"Sinnah." Theo spat. Spirits forbid the man had come all this way to repay Theo for the scuffle in the slave market of Corath.

The mailed fist of one of the men holding him glanced off his ear. "That's Lord Sinnah to you, boy." He hissed in pain and stepped back hard onto the man's foot. There was a yelp behind him and someone else hit him, this time with the hilt of a sword. Through the bright lights and ringing in his ears he heard Sinnah's laughter. This time there was genuine amusement in the sound, and in the man's face when Theo's vision cleared enough to glare up at it.

"Secure them and make camp." Sinnah ordered and turned his horse, of a sudden disinterested in his prisoners.

"Why?" Theo demanded, desperately needing some answers to make sense of all this. Sinnah did not deem to turn his head at the question and Theo got no second chance to voice it, as he and his men were secured by chain and rope along a picket the slavers strung out between two of the great standing stones.




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