“Continually give and you’ll continually have,” the slave known as Ernal intoned with a straight face. Ram snorted softly in disgust. The rest of the thirteen made no sound, though a couple of the men did crack half-smiles and there were more than a few wry looks passed around.
“Well,” Xorn finally muttered, “we have maybe another half hour at this rest stop and we’d dang well better focus our attention on finishing our rations and attending to nature.”
None could argue with that. There was silence then, broken only by old Ernal’s toothless smacking as he worked over jerky meant to be ground down by working molars and the wheeze of Narting’s asthmatic breathing.
Xorn looked as mindless as the rest of them, but that was for survival, a necessary mask. Inside, his thoughts probed, tested, evaluated every possibility, studied his current situation, wondered how he could possibly survive long enough to reach the mountains. Seldom did he think of himself as Wallis Norkin these days. Even less often did his old title as Captain of the Navri City Militia cross his mind. He’d learned what slavery meant–at least the sort of slavery generally practiced among the Bowl’s city states–and from the inside, it was a whole different thing. There were scars on his back now, mostly hidden beneath the rough, sleeveless jerkin he wore.
They all wore such, his brothers of the pack train, jerkins and woolen pants above sturdy work boots, and of course the pack chain that ran from one man’s waist to the next, precisely six feet between them. Enough to allow free walking en route, single file, but also enough to require inhuman levels of coordination between all 13 of them, should they decide to run. Or mutiny, for that matter, though their current owner, trader Vittorio Partoin, took no chances. Up front, trader Partoin and his guards rode free and heavily armed, followed by 27 heavily laden pack mules…and the lead slave was always rope-tethered by the neck to a ring in the rear mule’s saddle.
The message there was clear enough. Human slaves are worth less than the meanest mule; let them come last and eat dust. And avoid stepping in piles of road apples or not, for that matter. The slaves were, of course, laden as heavily as the mules, each man carrying a pack that weighed, in Xorn’s estimation, roughly his own weight. His own pack had nearly broken him before his body adjusted. He was, after all, no kid any more.
At stops like this one, during the day on the trail, they were allowed to huddle up as they would, only taking care to keep from tangling their chains, easing their packs to the ground for 45 minutes at a time according to Pack Master Curly’s timepiece. At night, securement of the humans was simple. A slave stump, two feet in diamater, twenty feet tall and long since cut to size for the purpose, would be encircled by the chain gang, after which the lead slave’s chain was padlocked to the last slave’s chain, and that was that. They were free to do as they chose until false dawn.
The slave chains had their own strict rules, he discovered. A community latrine was dug on the downwind side of the slave stump, or in many cases re-dug, as these trade routes between the cities and the mountain holdings had been used by many different pack trains over the years. If you had to go, you made a formal announcement: “Code Two Request!” Even deep in the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep, you had to do that. The Creator help any slave who gained a reputation for calling Code too often…but not even the Creator could help the fool who did not do so and as a result soiled himself. A slave owned almost nothing, which was why, he’d reasoned out, nearly every slave lashed out viciously at losing even the right not to lie through the night next to a man who’d carelessly made himself smellier than usual.
The chain did not dare kill an offender, of course. The trader would skin every man jack of them alive if they cost him a valuable piece of property. Crucifixion was not unknown, especially upside down in the ancient way. But the self-soiled could be beaten severely and usually were, with surprising exceptions occasionally made for those who lost control through severe illness.
Curiously, Xorn found this made more sense to him than many of the ways free men acted toward one another.
Trader Partoin was in fact the Grain Hollow meat processor Councilwoman Risa Macklin had told him he’d be sold to eventually…but she had not told him Partoin would know nothing of his secret mission. To this owner, he was truly only a low end pack beast, albeit one that fit a particular set of specifications Wing Holder had let be known he would appreciate in new slaves, slaves for which he would pay a premium, should they be brought to him yet unbranded. Some buyers did prefer it that way, especially among the mountain people, where it was not always an S brand on the forehead that announced a man’s slave status to the world. Wing might want to mark his slaves in his own way, Partoin figured, though he gave it little more thought than that. There was profit to be made; that was all there was to it.
“Saddle up!” Pack Master Curly’s stentorian bellow brought them struggling to their feet, shouldering their packs. The lead mules were already in motion. Nobody got jerked, though. They were veterans now, hunching forward under their loads, each finding his own stride but none lagging. The last laggard had been left behind days ago, slaughtered with a relatively merciful beheading via Curly’s sword and left for the coyotes.
Those who remained were hardened veterans of the trail, unlikely to make mistakes.
No more smart remarks from Ernal. Wasting breath on the move was unthinkable.
Up front, Partoin relaxed, enjoying the comfortable gait of his Hollow bred gelding. No mountain horse, the animal would be swapped out for another from the remount remuda once the reached the steep going, but here in the foothills there was no smoother ride.
“We’ll reach the Ice Road in another couple of hours, don’t you think? Well before sundown?” He’d made this trek a couple of times, but Curly had run the route regularly for years.
“Ngh,” the Pack Master grunted, a habit he had when people around him voiced stupid questions. Not that his employer understood as much; it wouldn’t do to lose the best paying job he’d had in a good long while. “A little before sundown, only. The Ice Road launches us up into the mountains proper. Those peaks throw long shadows.”
“Enough time to reach the first pullout with spring water before camping for the night?”
“Barely, boss. We’ll be into dusk, for sure.” Thinking it over, he decided to lighten up a bit. An effort, but worth it. Vittorio Partoin was really a pretty damn good boss, and he shared profits with his men, his Pack Master and the 20 guards, all of whom were carefully selected for certain…traits. Skill at arms, a given for merchant trains, but also ruthlessness, loyalty to the man who paid them, and the ability to keep their mouths shut even when drinking or when things didn’t go as planned. Necessary traits, considering the nature of their cargo.
Oh, Vittorio traded in specialty meats, all right. He did that. Lamb cutlets treated with the secret preservative recipe that kept them from spoiling on the long journey to the high mountains; he was known especially for those. They sold well, too…but they weren’t the real money makers in the loads. Fifteen percent of the freight by weight was illegal contraband of the sort that could get a man executed on the spot, were it to become known in the wrong quarters. Plant based hallucinogenics, mostly, carefully processed in secret cookeries just on the edge of Brighart. Concoctions that could get you high, transport you to other worlds while in many cases leaving you completely incapable of functioning in this one. There were also potions that could render the coldest woman amenable to the most carnal suggestions, others that did the same to men if that happened to be the buyer’s preference, poisons that could kill with no more than a taste on the tip of the tongue, almost-poisons that slowed the metabolism enough for the user to fake his own death. Brighart Assassins’ Guild production, some said; perhaps the Dark Knives were getting greedy.
Sensibly, the fancy meats were packed on top of each load, over great bundles of woolens from Track Crossing. The Crossing weavers made the best cloth in all the Bowl. It was much in demand in the mountain holdings, the raising of sheep not being a suitable occupation among the peaks where countless predators roamed. Oh sure, sheep had been tried there, but they’d never lasted long. Several breeds of cattle did well, but all of those had wicked, curved horns and would hurl their thousand pound bodies en masse at a prowling bear, even a grizzly. Sheep had defenses against…basically, nothing.
The various drugs rode deep toward the bottoms of the packs, well wrapped in woolen fabric and well hidden. A thorough search would of course find them, but no one had ever had reason to suspect the venerable meat processor, Vittorio Partoin.
Curly was pretty sure Partoin had no idea his Pack Master knew the income percentages for each category of sales. Fancy meats, eight percent. Woolens, six percent. Slaves, nine percent. Contraband, seventy-seven percent. The meats, fabrics, and slaves brought in enough to break even; the illegal stuff was pure, lovely profit, half for the boss, a tenth for the Pack Master, the remaining four tenths split evenly among the twenty guards.
It was a good living. Hell, it was a great living.
Of course, they’d need to stay away from Wing Holding for a while after this. Two or three years at least, let the rumors die down, the rumors that they’d been the ones who’d supplied the losers with what they wanted. The word didn’t always get out–their contacts, the drug wholesalers, had plenty of motivation to protect their sources–but taking chances was never a good idea. So Partoin simply assumed they’d be suspected eventually and figured to go trade with other holdings for a while, just for safety’s sake.
All in all, it was great when a plan came together.
The afternoon was, quite frankly, about as pleasant as such an afternoon could get. Meadowlarks belted out their songs, ignoring the pack train, intent on their own feathered business. The grade was gentle, no problem for the horses or even for the heavily laden mules, and who cared about the human mules bringing up the rear? As the hours passed, a gentle breeze eased down from the high mountain passes, bringing hints of the still frozen lakes where ice cutters still labored, just enough to cool the day as the sweltering lowlands were left behind them. In a nutshell, it was a good day to be alive. In fact–
“–What the?!” Partoin did not pull to a halt, but his eyes narrowed considerably and his free hand touched the sword at his waist. The final bend in the Grain Hollow Trail revealed what could only be construed as a…roadblock. A group of soldiers; they could be nothing else. On foot, most of them, half again as many fighting men as he had with him. Bandits? No; marauders would have struck from ambush, staying under cover until the last possible second. These were…these were trouble, is what they were.
“Pass the word to the men,” he said softly, but he needn’t have bothered. Curly had already given the signal. Every guard, well mounted and no stranger to combat, had his shortbow in his rein hand and his sword loosened in its sheath.
As the rear of the train rounded the bend, Xorn the slave, sixth in the chain, summed up the situation at a glance. A tall pine tree had been dropped across the Ice Road junction. Held several feet from the ground by its own downside limbs, it provided an effective barrier to uphill traffic. Especially with its upside limbs shorn so that infantry could shelter behind the massive trunk, it did. Only one man stood completely in the open, a cocksure youngster full of his own arrogance.
“Toll, is it?” Partoin’s voice sounded pleasant enough, as if he were simply passing the time of day or asking a neighbor at table to pass the roast pheasant.
“Oh, we’ll take your toll, right enough,” came the reply, “but then you’ll be turning that pack train back around and scooting on back to the Hollow.”
“Ah. And by what authority–”
“The authority of the Navri City Council!” The speaker’s pleasant veneer vanished in an instant. “I am Lieutenant Camron Gyosk Biggs, in charge of this road detail, and you will not question my authority!”
“Hm. I suppose not,” the meat processor and well known trader agreed, “especially since you don’t have any authority. Not to interfere with honest traders from the city of Grain Hollow, you don’t. Especially right here in no man’s land. These foothills have never belonged to one of us or the other, and Navri City knows that.”
Listening, the former Navri City lawman suddenly hissed to the men before and behind him on the chain, his voice low and urgent. “Close up! Pass the word! Close up!” Such was the authority in his voice that his fellow slaves didn’t hesitate. Once the group was bunched, Xorn risked another quick look forward, evaluating. The two sides were still talking, but if he was any judge of such matters, it wouldn’t be long now.
“Narting, let’s have your knife.” Such things were not allowed among slaves, of course, but that had never stopped the athsmatic. He’d carried the rusty little blade hidden in his overgrown mop of curly hair for some time now, lucking out, never having been owned by a master who had the heads of his slaves shaved as a matter of routine. The weapon–though it could barely be called that–was passed forward to old Ernal, the lead slave on the chain.
“Ernal, cut the rope tying you to the mule, but not all the way. Leave a few strands, enough to hide what we’ve done if no one looks too closely, but weak enough it’ll break with one good yank.”
The old man didn’t even blink, just went to cutting.
Amazing, that these men were obeying him, just like that. On the other hand, as slaves they’d grown used to acting automatically when someone spoke with authority, and the former Captain of Militia still knew how to do that much at least.
“Okay,” he said when Ernal was done and had returned the knife down the line to the kid–Narting could not be more than fourteen or fifteen, asthma or no–“here’s the deal. Stay like we are, like a bunch of sheep huddled together when the wolves are coming at them. Look scared and helpless.” That was redundant! They didn’t have to act to do that, with a total of 50 armed free men up there about to go at it hammer and tong! Everybody knew a slave’s best chance at survival was to look like the property he legally was, not a person. “If I see a chance to get us free, I’m going to take it–and if I move fast, you all better move fast right with me. Otherwise, I’ll get yanked up short just six feet from where I stand this moment, but give me even a few more feet and it might make a difference.”
One man, a stocky fellow originally from Track Crossing who had never shown much of an imagination, asked, “A difference in what way? All I–”
Sudden shouts and screams and the clash of steel on steel ended their conversation. All eyes snapped forward. Vittorio Partoin had indeed declined to submit to the newly fielded Navri City Army. The war, or at least the battle, was on. Fortunately, it was fairly easy to follow, at least for the moment. The mules were freaking out, though little attention was being paid to the mule men fighting to keep their charges under control. Not now, they weren’t. But if the NCA aggressors won, they would not want witnesses left alive. The mule handlers would be slaughtered first, then the helpless slaves on the chain. Witnesses could mean civil war between the cities.
All this flashed through Xorn’s awareness in an instant…but for the moment, there was nothing he could do. Running was out of the question unless they could get free of the chain. Then…maybe there was a chance. An ugly chance, surrounded by death on all sides, but a chance.
He waited, watching, while the other slaves watched him as much as they did the battle.
One would have thought the NCA infantry would have had the advantage, tucked behind the tree trunk as most of them were, but it did not start out that way. The cocksure young lieutenant had dropped first of all, felled not by a pack train guard but by so called friendly fire, a crossbow quarrel in the back. A nervous shot gone wild from a soldier new to battle or a revenge taken, who knew? It mattered little. What did matter was that the three squads of infantry had suddenly lost their leader, such as he was, and it made a difference. There were sergeants, two of them, but both of them newly minted as well. Against hardened mercenaries who’d been fighting bandits–and sometimes each other–before the uniformed troops were born, size did not matter. Not this time, it did not, and neither did the NCA’s defensive position. Guards had fallen, but not many of them, and the remainder needed no orders to split into three groups, one using their shortbows to force the enemy soldiers to keep their heads down behind the log, others sweeping up the slopes to either side of the roadblock. Thirty fighters against twenty to start, but the thirty found themselves flanked before they could blink.
From there it was every man for himself.
Not that the NCA troops cut and ran. Being surrounded on three sides and having no inclination to flee into the mountains held by Wing and his people, they were forced to fight, and fight they did. Their numbers dwindled. It began to look like they would be wiped out to a man…
…but the mercenaries had made one terrible mistake. They’d left their younger opponents with no way out. A dozen of the NCA troops were already dead or dying when the tide shifted, twelve men who’d been either slower to react appropriately or simply less lucky than their fellows. Eighteen still stood, eighteen youngsters from the slums of Navri City who’d enlisted in the new Army as a way to better themselves. Few of them had reached their eighteenth birthday…but they had grown up hard and now, seeing their friends sliced apart or pierced through with arrows, the horror of war came home to them once and for all.
Hoy Colton felt an arrow tug at his shirt sleeve and responded with a carefully aimed crossbow bolt that took Pack Master Curly fair through the heart. Oscar Turn met not one but two guards with nothing but a naked blade in his hands and slew them both, first diving to his right as he sliced a knee out from under one, then using the falling man’s body as a shield until he could gather himself and leap forward, beating a tall, grizzled man’s broadsword aside and slicing his throat on the backstroke. He’d always been quick, Oscar had.
Vittorio Partoin watched all of it, at least as much of the raging battle as he could process visually, and his bowels turned to water. He did not soil himself physically, not quite, but his former calm courage in the face of a foreign government’s unimaginable aggression seemed suddenly…unwise. Every one of his fighting men was engaged in the battle beyond the log now, save only those who were already engaged in explaining themselves to the Judge of the Dead. It had looked like he was going to win, and had he truly been a fighting man himself, he might yet have done so–but it was not to be. To Hell with the merchandise; I’m getting out of here.
Such was his thought. He turned his gray gelding and dug in the spurs. Already nervous, the tall horse took off like a shot, back down the trail, topping twenty miles per hour by the time he’d skimmed past the last mule in the train–wha-?! The slaves had suddenly lurched out in front of his horse. It took him far too long to process this impossible information, the fact that his mount had dropped its haunches and dug in, sliding to an abrupt stop in an attempt to keep from hitting the massed men. He was sailing, sailing free over their heads like a bird in the sky…until his skull met a rock during the landing and he knew no more.
The headache when he returned to consciousness reminded him of the hangovers he’d experienced during his drinking days, only worse. A thousand times worse. Suddenly realizing he had to vomit, he tried to roll over. Something was wrong; nothing moved right, and he hurled on himself, barely getting his head up enough to avoid choking.
He passed out again.
When he came around a second time, his wits seemed to work a bit better. Something still felt wrong, though. It took a while to figure out what it was. He was sitting on the ground, his back to a small tree, his legs lashed together at the ankles and his wrists tied behind the sapling. It was full dark. Seven soldiers squatted around a fire, turning meat on sticks over the flames. His own gourmet lamb cutlets, he realized.
This was not good.
“Ah.” One of the men, some sort of rank markings on his sleeves, peered at him intently. “The asshole is awake.” The others looked but said nothing, apparently more interested in supper than a captive tied to a tree.
“What–” Vittorio’s voice wasn’t right. He cleared his throat and tried again. Besides, he’d been about to say, What are you going to do to me? That would never do. “What is this all about?”
“All about?” The soldier–a sergeant, maybe–scratched his stubbled chin reflectively. “You mean, other than your attempt to defy our constitutionally mandated authority, an attempt that resulted in the deaths of twenty-three fine soldiers serving in the Navri City Army?”
A spark of defiance rose up in Partoin then, the words escaping his mouth of their own accord. “Constitutionally mandated authority, my ass.”
“Well. As to that. It really is your ass on the line, now isn’t it? Oh, there’s little doubt our report will encourage the Grain Hollow City Council to pay damages. You attacked us, and they are certainly sensible enough not to want a civil war. Eh?”
So that’s how it’s going to be. “The Big Lie, eh? That’s what they tell you to say?”
“No,” the sergeant–he had to be a sergeant–said slowly. “They tell us to inspect pack trains like yours. There have been a lot of illegal drugs circulating in recent years, both in the cities and in the mountain holdings. What do you suppose this does?” He picked up a tiny glass jar containing a liquid of a deep cobalt blue.
Vittorio Partoin could feel the color draining from his face. He knew very well what otumo did. It brought visions to the careful user. It brought more money per ounce than any other concoction he’d ever hauled. And its presence in his pack train had just sentenced him to death.
All of his men–his fighting men–were also dead, he supposed. Served the bastards right; they should have won. The worthless mule men were probably with the mules like always.
It didn’t even occur to him to wonder what had happened to the slaves.