When he first heard the sound, he passed it off as wind rustling through the trees. It was like a soft whooshing in the air above him, and he only asserted importance to it when he heard cries from off the right side of camp.
Did he fall asleep? Was this a dream? Gregory sat up quickly, and then dropped again as he heard the canopy of his wagon rip above his head. Something tore through one side of the cloth and passed out the other with only a flicker. An arrow.
Another cry split the air.
“Form up!” the Captain hollered in the camp. Gregory silently applauded the man for his quick response, but he was certain that it would be too late to get out of this battle unscathed. Whoever was attacking the camp was close enough to fire arrows. Still, it was only seconds after the attack began and already he was prepping his soldiers to fight.
Gregory crawled along the bottom of his wagon, trying to get as close to the back edge as possible. His back sat above the wooden sides and a few inches were exposed, but it would offer more protection than he had currently.
He allowed himself to admit how scared, confused, and out of sorts he was. He heard more shouts and screams, followed by the clash of metal as the soldiers engaged their attackers. Gregory had been in fights before, but this was something worse. Something far more chaotic.
He wracked his brain for a way out of this situation. Bandits were the most likely culprit, launching a nighttime raid. Nighttime or not, he held no illusions about who would win. This was a caravan of the Kingdoms finest soldiers: no bandit group stood a chance. Whoever was attacking would soon understand that they had greatly misjudged their enemy.
But maybe this would be a perfect opportunity to escape. Gregory worked his way to the back of the wagon, ignoring the arrows slicing the canopy as best he could, and perched near the edge. He glanced at the bulky knot tying him to the wagon and shook his head. Not a chance he could unravel it in time. No, he would have to cut himself free.
He could hear screaming, cursing, and the clash of metal nearby. The battle was intensifying.
He leaned out the back of wagon the tinniest bit and tried to see inside the soldiers’ camp. From his angle, he couldn’t spot any fighting, but he could hear it. Less than thirty feet away, he estimated with a shudder.
If he was going to have any chance of survival, he would need something sharp. A rock might even do the trick if it had an edge. With a deep breath and an appeal for courage, he slid out of the wagon and to the ground, ducking as low as possible and crawling underneath its belly. The light in this section of the camp was inconsistent, and he was certain that he wouldn’t be spotted in the shadows. He began searching.
No rocks. The road was clean.
The sound of battle picked up even more. It surrounded him completely now, which surprised Gregory. The soldiers were being pushed back in his direction, which wasn’t what he expected. Well trained bandits? Could they possibly win out over the soldiers, and even if they did, would that put Gregory in a better situation than his current one?
No, better to try and escape than hope for any particular outcome. A scream came from his left, and he tried to ignore it as he broadened his search. After a few seconds he spotted something useful: one of the arrows had lodged itself into the wooden lip of the wagon in front of him in the semi-circle instead of ripping through the canopy.
He started moving that direction, crouched, and reached for the arrow. He almost had it, only inches away, and then his hands stopped moving. He was at the end of his rope.
Three inches, but it might as well have been a mile. He crawled back to his wagon, cursing how exposed he was in the open, and wracked his brain for a solution.
The wheels were locked in place during nights to keep them from rolling on unleveled ground. He moved to the rear axle and searched for the locking mechanism. If he got the wheels loose, he might be able to drag the wagon enough to retrieve the arrow.
He began fiddling with the locking pin. It popped loose and he crawled to the other wheel. There was another cry nearby, much closer, and he heard a sickening thump as something heavy hit the ground. He focused and began working on the axle.
More cries and he saw light enter his area. The area was getting quieter as sounds of battle went away. Torches. He worked frantically, in a panic now, but the second axle was stuck. He couldn’t work the pin loose.
He was breathing heavily and sweating, and it took him a moment to notice that the sound of fighting had dissipated. Everything was quiet. He stopped struggling with the axle and slid into the shadows under the wagon, regulating his breathing and heart rate as best he could.
Not that it did any good. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, he was terrified, and he couldn’t stop panting. And, worse than anything, he needed to pee.
Which side won? He heard horses neighing in the distance, followed by the trampling of hooves into the darkness. They had just released the guards’ horses into the night.
The guards didn’t win.
Gregory gulped. Not bandits; bandits would never send valuable horses away. No, this was something entirely different.
He huddled beneath the wagon and saw legs come toward him. They were clothed in animal hides and furs. Gregory tried to stay out of sight, ducked beneath the front edge of his wagon. Another pair of legs joined the first, and he heard murmuring. He didn’t recognize the language.
Gregory shifted slightly, hands out in front of him and stretched at the end of his rope. If only he had reached the arrow he could have disappeared into the night. He forced himself to remain silent, watching and trying to stay calm. A long minute passed.
Maybe they wouldn’t find him after all.
Gregory felt the rope jerk and stumbled forward onto his face. He hit the ground with a loud thud and groaned in pain as his stomach collided with dirt.
The thud was followed by a sharp command in another language; he didn’t understand the word, but he knew the tone. So much for hope he might go unnoticed. He felt the rope pulling him and was forced to crawl out from under the wagon.
He was roughly forced to his feet and came face to face with a man of angular features and cold eyes. The man and his companion were wearing a mix of hide armor and pelts covering half of their bodies and all of their vital organs. Not bandits for sure, but military in their demeanor. These were soldiers.
The man said something Gregory didn’t understand, and he could only shake his head in confusion. The man exchanged a glance with his companion and spoke again in the common tongue.
“Who are you?”
“Nobody,” he replied.
“No soldier?” the man said awkwardly.
Gregory shook his head adamantly. The man stared at him, and then looked at his bindings. “Prisoner?”
Gregory nodded. “Yes.”
The man seemed hesitant, and then cut the rope connecting Gregory to the wagon. He didn’t cut the rope off Gregory’s hands, keeping him bound, and there was still about six feet of slack dragging from his wrists to the ground, but he wasn’t about to complain. The man patted himself on the chest.
“Leader,” he said. “Mahkinson.”
Still bound by manacles, Gregory made a rough gesture with both of his hands, trying to touch his chest.
“Gregory,” he said. The man nodded and walked away, not seeming to care. The other man watched him go, then grabbed Gregory by the shoulder and started guiding him along.
So much for friends.
They came around the edge of the caravan, and Gregory felt a sharp intake of breath. The Comerians, nearly thirty soldiers and half as many hired hands, were lying on the ground. Some had arrows sticking out of them, and others had gaping wounds crossing their torsos and limbs.
Some were still alive, crying, moaning, and trying to scream in agony. A fair number of the enemy soldiers who had attacked were dead and dying as well, though not as many as he would have expected.
Enemy soldiers? The thought came unbidden, but he knew it was true. He was disgusted by the scene of carnage before him, and they caused it. This was their devastation, attacking travelers in the night. Nevermind that the soldiers had been intending to murder him, this was far more brutal.
If they killed these soldiers so easily and efficiently, how could he possibly believe they wouldn’t kill him?
No, Gregory decided, they definitely couldn’t be friends. And if they couldn’t be friends when killing is involved, they might as well be enemies.
Gregory watched as one man in hide armor moved to a crying soldier. The Comerian started begging and pleading for his life, but the man didn’t seem to notice. Instead he knelt next to the Comerian; Gregory saw that there was a dagger in his hand.
Muttering something under his breath, the man plunged the dagger into the wounded soldier’s throat and yanked it out, one fluid motion. Gregory winced. Even in the dim glow of the campfire, he could see the terror and pain in the soldier’s eyes as his life ebbed away. A moment later and there was nothing left except gushing blood.
Gregory averted his gaze away as the man moved to the next soldier. He held his breathing steady and focused on showing no emotion. No doubt they would continue crying, moaning, or any other show of emotion as a sign of weakness.
Confronted with death, he found reserves of courage to help him stay strong. The executioner moved through the crowd of wounded, treating his own mortally wounded in the same fashion as the Comerians. This man embodies death, Gregory thought with a shudder. He refused to think about what would happen next.
Gregory heard a yelp from his left and saw a man stumble into the clearing. It was one of the Comerian soldiers, wearing chainmail, and Gregory looked away as he saw one of the enemies close behind. Gregory didn’t want to watch this man die; he didn’t want to see the Prince executed…
The thought stopped him and he glanced back up, taking in more of the scene before him. The Prince stood there, still in uniform and terrified. Bryce was looking at the soldiers around him, helpless and young and surrounded with carnage. The executioner behind him had his sword ready and was preparing to plunge it into the Prince’s heart.
“Wait!” Gregory shouted, then immediately regretted it. The camp fell silent, all eyes turned to him. The grip on his shoulder tightened, but the man about to plunge a sword through the Prince’s heart paused.
Seconds passed in silence, and no one seemed sure what to do. Mahkinson appeared from behind one of the wagons and moved through the carnage to Gregory. He walked with smooth and purposeful strides. His face was a mask of rage, and Gregory suddenly felt very small.
“They no speak to you,” Mahkinson said slowly, stopping in front of Gregory and gesturing toward his men. He spoke calmly, accentuating his words. “You speak to them?” he asked, and Gregory could feel the barely controlled rage in his new captor.
He couldn’t help but blink and take a deep breath. Mahkinson turned, eyes still on Gregory, and waved a hand at the executioner. The sword was raised once more. Gregory knew that what he was likely getting himself killed, but didn’t give himself time to make a rational decision. He didn’t want to watch anyone else be murdered, and it was the only way he could think of to stop the bloodshed.
“Prince,” he said. Mahkinson spun in a flash and slapped Gregory across the face. Hard. Gregory winced in pain; Mahkinson was wearing rings. It felt like a knuckle duster.
The death was halted, however. All eyes were again on Gregory.
“No speak!” Mahkinson said, and the rage was clear now. The man was only a few inches taller than Gregory, but he seemed to tower above him now. The hand came up, preparing another attack, and this time it was bunched into a fist.
“Bryce Hunner!” Gregory said, forcing himself to stand up and speak clearly through the pain. For the love of all the Gods understand! Mahkinson stepped forward to hit Gregory again and stopped, his eyes going wide.
Recognition appeared in his eyes. Mahkinson stepped back and turned to face the Prince. Everything was silent once more. Mahkinson said something quick and the executioner stepped back, lowering his blade. Mahkinson whirled on Gregory again, but the anger was gone…
No, not gone, just diminished behind shock. But at least he understood what Gregory was trying to tell him.
“Bryce…” Mahkinson said, “Hunner…?”
“Prince Bryce Hunner.”
Mahkinson spun and yelled a stream of words in his language. Cheers and screams filled the air from the raiding band. When the cheering died down, Mahkinson reached for Gregory and grabbed the slack of rope attached to his manacles and dragged him forward.
He searched around for bodies and eventually found the Captain. Gregory saw the dead man’s face, and the look of pain he died with. There was nothing glorious about the man’s death. It was just…the end. This man told Gregory that he knew he was innocent, yet would kill him anyway as an example.
Would the Captain be an example? Or even a footnote in history? The man wanted to kill Gregory, yet when he asked himself if he felt pity for the dead Captain, the answer was yes.
Mahkinson reached down and began digging through the Captain’s pockets, letting go of the rope holding Gregory. There were no illusions about escape. Finally, Mahkinson stood up with a key in hand.
He motioned to Gregory, who held his hands up mechanically, and in a moment the manacles were off. Gregory rubbed his wrists and felt a tingle of relief; despite everything, all the dead bodies, the sickening smell of blood mixed with urine and feces, he was relieved to have his wrists unbound. He felt as though he was free.
No, not free. The moment passed. He looked at his new captors and knew that he wasn’t in a better position. Mahkinson turned from Gregory and went to where Bryce was being held. The Prince hadn’t moved. He looked confused and scared, nearly delirious. Gregory watched as they put his manacles on Bryce and two men led him away.
They disappeared into the forest. Exactly as Gregory had feared, they went East. The opposite direction he wanted to go. Gregory looked around at more of the dead bodies. Many of them were older than him, but not a lot.
Pain and fear were the most common expressions, and he couldn’t help but wonder what he would look like when he died. Would it be like this?
Would it be tonight?
He didn’t know. His eyes fixed on a location. He was looking at the ground about ten feet away, where one of the men who had captured him in the city lay dead. But, more importantly, he saw his hat lying on the ground next to him. Gregory walked slowly over to him and knelt down next to him.
As predicted, the man also had Gregory’s money pouch and dagger, both attached to his hip. The emotional side of him told him to ignore the affects. This wasn’t his scene of carnage, and these weren’t his spoils, but the practical side of him objected. These were his. They might not be much, but they belonged to him.
He forced down his disgust and unclipped the pouch from the guard’s belt. He decided to leave the dagger, lest his new enemies thought he was planning to disobey them. He slipped the money pouch into his pocket, and on impulse picked up the hat and slipped it over his head.
He stood up as Mahkinson came over, smiling now and at ease. It was as though he hadn’t just murdered some fifty people.
“Yours?” Mahkinson asked, gesturing at the hat.
“Prisoner,” he said, and Gregory thought Mahkinson was talking about him.
At least that would clarify their positions. Then he saw that Mahkinson was pointing toward Bryce, not him.
After a second, Mahkinson motioned toward Gregory:
Mahkinson wasn’t asking.
How could Gregory refuse?