Gregory awoke tied down on a wooden surface, unable to move. Waves of agony rippled through his body and it felt as though someone had jammed a hot poker into his stomach. His memory started flooding back and he realized how close to the truth that was.
Leather wraps bound his wrists and ankles, and he could feel the floor shifting and creaking beneath him. No, he realized, not a floor at all: he was on the bed of one of the wagons in the caravan, tied down. He tested the wraps, ignoring the pain, and found them to be secure.
“I wouldn’t try to escape,” a voice said.
He looked past his feet and saw the Captain seated behind him on the hardwood flooring. Gregory also noticed that his stomach was wrapped in a thick white cloth.
Little splotches of red dotted the fabric, and he wondered how much blood he had lost. At least he wasn’t dead.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, laying his head back with a sigh. “Where am I?”
“Tied to a wagon.”
“I know that much. I meant to say: where are we going?”
“Ah,” he said. “I suppose I got what I wanted: a free trip to the Capital.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Of course not,” he said. “I am tied down, after all.”
“Who hired you?”
Gregory couldn’t contain a groan.
“Should I lie this time? The truth got me stabbed.”
“Humor me. How did you know Bryce would be here?”
The name sounded vaguely familiar to Gregory and he spent a moment wracking his brain for the connection.
Then it hit him. Gregory grimaced.
“Bryce Hunner. Are you kidding me? And just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse.”
“He was in disguise and you approached him directly.”
“I thought he looked important.”
“He is. Addressing him was foolish.”
“I know that now,” Gregory said. “But at the time it seemed like a good plan.”
“If it was only an honest mistake,” the Captain said, “then you have my sympathy. And my pity.”
“Lot of good that does me.”
“No,” the Captain said. “I suppose it doesn’t.”
“I thought he was just a paranoid merchant hiding in a disguise. Why would the Prince of Comer travel discreetly?”
“To avoid the prying eyes of assassins,” the Captain replied.
“But not the eyes of innocent bystanders?”
“He has been on the road in that disguise for four months, and you were the first to approach him.”
“Just lucky I guess. Did you ever consider that maybe I didn’t know who he was?”
A long pause. “I knew you weren’t an assassin when I was interrogating you.”
“You mean when you were beating me…?”
The Captain ignored him. “Or, at the very least, you were a terrible one. You passed out with little provocation.”
“You stabbed me!”
The Captain waved his hand in dismissal. “Barely a scratch.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but all I was looking for was passage to Mulrich with a well-protected caravan.”
The Captain eyed him for a long moment and then sighed. “I believe you.”
“I had hoped you were a criminal, or at least a vagabond. It would make what is going to happen to you now a lot easier.”
There was a stab of cold fear in Gregory’s stomach. “Should I ask?”
“You will be executed.”
“I’m innocent,” Gregory said, tensing up. “You know I’m innocent, and yet plan to kill me anyway?”
“You are leverage. The Prince was an idiot to make this journey in person. I told him that, and he refused to believe me. The world is a dangerous place for someone as important as Bryce. When you are executed as his attempted assassin, he will see that.”
Silence held, and Gregory felt weak. He couldn’t tell if it was the injury to his stomach or the sickening realization of his predicament, but he felt himself losing consciousness. They must have given him drugs to soothe his wounds.
The Captain spoke again: “If it is any consolation, the wound to your stomach missed all of your vital organs and did little damage. You should recover fully within a few days,” the Captain said. “You should be fully healed by the time of your execution.”
“Great. I feel better already…” Gregory said, feeling his eyes slipping shut. He felt exhausted, though he kept trying to speak.
He felt his lips moving, but wasn’t sure if he had managed to say anything else or not. At some point he might even have mumbled about wasted money on a lost hat.
The next several days were a blur; he awoke at various intervals to be fed and cleaned. They untied him regularly to relieve himself at first, but it was difficult and monotonous with the bindings, and they finally settled on a system of manacles and ropes to bind him to the back hitch of the wagon.
The Captain didn’t come to see him again, and instead he was cared for by hired hands who eyed him with disdain. They either didn’t know he was innocent or didn’t care. His wounds were patched and cleaned, but he was not offered any more pain medicine. Dead man walking, why bother with expensive medicines?
He decided to wait until he recovered, then try to find a way of severing the bonds and disappearing into the forest. He didn’t know the surrounding region, and he was sure that it was uncivilized and dangerous land. Dangerous, but he would risk it.
Better to face death unknown in the forest then at the hands of his captors. Once he was free of the caravan, he would rely on his own luck to keep him alive.
Of course, luck hadn’t done much for him yet.
Finally, five days later, he found himself quite a bit stronger, and free of infection. He had seen what infections could do to the human body, and prayed that he would be spared such a painful death.
There was residual pain and discomfort, but not enough to debilitate him. He continued acting as if he was in pain, hoping that his newfound health would remain secret from his captors for a while longer.
Hopefully they would think he was still weak and helpless up to the time he disappeared. Now he just had to find the perfect opportunity.
He listened to the conversations of those who walked near his wagon, as well as those who brought him food and water. The caravan was one only day from the course change due West. Then, in another five days they would arrive in Mulrich.
Seven days into the trip, and six days left in which he might escape. He tested the strength of the rope and tried to find weaknesses. It was tied firmly to manacles on his wrists and the wagon itself with around eight feet of slack. The ties on both the manacles and the wagon were tested by a soldier every hour, so he didn’t bother trying to work them loose.
His best course of action would be to find a weak point in the rope to exploit. It wasn’t long before he found such a point; some of the threads had split inside, and the rope felt thick and bunched in that section. It was about half as strong as the rest of the rope, and he might even be able to break it if he got a running start.
‘Might’ wasn’t enough possibility to waste his chance, though, and he decided cutting it would be worth the wait. Besides, he wasn’t in a hurry. Not yet.
On the seventh night of the journey, Gregory ate the food they gave him quietly and stared into the woods. If only they allowed him this trip under different circumstances, he might have found it relaxing and beautiful.
He had never traveled in such a deeply wooded area, and he found the enclosure to be both inspiring and stifling. His eyes couldn’t pierce more than a hundred feet in any direction through the trees, and he wondered what lay beyond his immediate surroundings.
How long would it take him to get lost? An hour? Less? He wasn’t in the mood to test it: despite his looming death, he was too comfortable.
His wagon was fifth in line out of eleven. They formed them into a semicircle, arching from the right side of the trail, across the left side, and back again to the right. They used the inside of the arc for a campsite, so that they had wagons at their back.
A pathetic line of defense, Gregory noted, but he wasn’t about to offer suggestions. Worse, it put his wagon near the center of the road. He wasn’t close to the forest on either side and would have a lot of open ground to cover to slip into the trees. Still, at least one side faced away from the soldiers, which was better than nothing.
He could hear them bustling around him, building fires for the night and preparing bedrolls. They used rotating watches through the night at four hour intervals, but only on the side opposite the wagons. Stupid, Gregory thought, and predictable. They relied on their numbers to keep enemies at bay.
He climbed out of the wagon, stretched his eight foot slack of rope away from the camp and relieved himself. He managed to stay out of sight of the soldiers, but nowhere near the tree line. There would be a twenty foot run before he could disappear into the foliage, and that was only if he managed to break the rope. Enough time to be spotted. With a sigh, he climbed back into the wagon and tried to sleep.
He ended up staring out the rear of the wagon at the night sky, wondering what death would be like. He’d been running for weeks now, afraid that his enemies back home might catch up to him, so he’d never imagine stumbling into a problem like this. It seemed ridiculous to go through so much effort to stay alive to die by a fluke of bad luck.
He didn’t have a family, other than his parents, and he had even less in the form of possessions and money. Death, he told himself, wouldn’t be much of a loss because he didn’t have much to lose.
Except he knew that wasn’t true. He knew that the only reason he wasn’t afraid of death was because he didn’t believe he would die. If he was being perfectly honest, the thought never even crossed his mind. He closed his eyes and let his body relax. The night was calm and peaceful.