It had been a long month.
Justin had been ashore for a regular resupply, only joining the landing party because one of his drills had broken and Opat had decent enough steel until he could get to Leshnat for the best replacement. It was supposed to have been a day in the nearest city and then back out to the Gem to continue down the coast.
Instead, he and three other crewmen had been hit with whatever tranquilizing darts were favored in the area. They’d all woken up tied with ropes and in the steel cage on the wagon Justin had now been trudging behind for the past two weeks. They’d all gotten clear of the ropes and cage easy enough, but hadn’t been able to find a familiar landmark to get back to the coast, and no familiar stars due to the constant cloud cover. Then they’d just gotten lost and been rounded up, hit with darts and beaten, and woken up back in the cage.
Of course they’d gotten out again a few times in the weeks following. Rendan had been killed the final time they’d escaped the cage, when they’d been even more lost, two weeks from the coast and still under continuous clouds. After again being rounded up, hit with darts and beaten, the remaining crew members had been shackled into chains ratcheted to the wagon and pulled behind the cage. Lark had simply died within the first week of walking. He was old and the chains were heavy.
Rourke and Justin had been the last of the crew members and they’d done well, but then Rourke turned a foot early into the morning a few days ago and hadn’t been able to walk with the way it was bent around. Justin had carried his friend since childhood for the rest of the day, Rourke arguing the whole way, but the guards refused treating the injury and threatened to kill Rourke when he couldn’t keep up. Justin refused to lose a friend.
The little girl in the wagon’s cage had woken everyone with her screams the next morning. Rourke had twisted himself up in his chains and managed to hang himself on the back of the wagon as everyone slept.
This scout the woman in the wagon had called Tor, who had just settled against Justin’s back as if the larger man was a chair, had joined the group this afternoon. The rest of his troop was nowhere to be seen, which was something Justin knew wasn’t typical for scouts because the ones he’d seen usually travelled in packs of four. Then again, the ones he’d seen usually wore the gold or green uniforms issued to them for serving on Opat’s prairies and coast, so maybe the mountain scouts with their black uniforms did things differently.
At the time Tor slipped into the ranks of guards, Justin hadn’t bothered to think about it due to the more pressing issue of slogging through the deepening snow and trying to figure out which mine he and the rest of the collected strong backs were heading to. At an iron mine he’d have access to all the tools he needed and likely some kind of rail track to follow for hauling the ore to the coast for transport or smelting, but a gemstone mine or one of the stone quarries and he’d likely labor hard and then die after a few months… or years.
Justin jerked on the chains on purpose and glared at the guards who were staring at him with their hands on their sword hilts. If he kept drawing attention or stood up, they would come over and likely beat him again. If he quieted, he had a chance to get his hands on the sword the scout was not only wearing but had just delivered. The blade on that sword would make short work of fully cracking the chipped chain link in the cheap Korballi-made steel Justin was wearing. Justin jerked the chains one more time and then settled, counting the links as he’d done every night, and the guards eventually turned back toward their fire or out toward the trees, muttering annoyance with him as they did.
“My sister stole bread for our grandmother because they couldn’t afford to buy it anymore,” Tor said, and Justin felt him shrug one shoulder. “It was such a terrible crime that she was sentenced to two years in the Meek River diamond mine, just on the other side of this next pass.”
Justin kept his back rigid, but the hope he’d been holding on to for getting placed in an iron mine died painfully when it extinguished.
“I can’t do nothing and just leave her. I don’t have anyone else,” Tor continued. “I don’t have the chips to buy her freedom from these guards. My relationship with our extended family is… tenuous I guess is the best word. Even if I could buy her freedom right now, I don’t have any way to get her out of Opat and away from the arrest if I don’t pay for that too, which I also obviously can’t afford.”
Justin noticed one of the guards was watching him as he carefully tested his reach to see if he could get his hands around his hip to where the scout’s sword was sitting. He glared at the guard and scratched at his waistband as if he’d had an itch he needed to stretch the limits of the links to reach. He needed a way to silence the chains from clinking whenever he moved or he would keep bringing the guards’ attention to himself… or he just needed to move quickly enough to get the scout’s sword and then it wouldn’t matter if he had the guards’ attention or not. Something about how relaxed the scout leaned on his back told him trying to be faster might not work tonight, though.
“I’ve been following the wagon since she was put in it a week ago,” Tor said. “We both grew up in that last village you walked through. I’ve never been to the coast, but my sister has.”
A weekly blog updating on Saturdays with quick personal blurbs about me, as in what's going on during my life as an Author and mom, and that doles out my short stories and novellas in bite-sized parts for everyone to read for free!