I would join - Editor
Pack-Brothers: The Ambush
by Will Frankenhoff
Dusk settled into the remote mountain pass. A chill breeze arrived, whispering among the stunted birch trees and silver-barked alders clinging to life amid the hard brown soil. An arctic fox, her coat already white in preparation for winter, paused to sniff the air. High above, a pair of red-tailed wyverns spiraled across the sky in an elaborate mating dance. The sole sign of civilization was an old road, its cracked paving stones overgrown with chokeberry bushes and knee-high spikegrass. Climbing out of a small wooded hollow to the west, it ran along the northern edge of the pass before turning southeast to head deeper into the mountains.
Blade-Lieutenant Eldan Swayne crouched behind a lichen-covered boulder thirty feet back from the road, a small hand-held crossbow resting in one gloved hand. Clad in the grey-green buckskin leathers of the Republic of Almaren’s Border Watch, including a hood that left only a slit for the eyes, Eldan’s motionless form blended into the rock; one shadow among many in the deepening twilight.
He was not alone. Eight other members of his small company lay concealed nearby. Most were armed with powerful recurve short bows; some cradled heavy crossbows. All carried regulation-issue longswords in blackened scabbards across their backs and broad-bladed daggers sheathed at their waists.
A voice whispered in Eldan’s mind, “Chief?”
The lieutenant breathed a sigh of relief. The “voice” belonged to Canus, Eldan’s pack-brother and the final member of the company. Eldan had sent him out to confirm the location of the Ssylarian slavers they’d been tracking the past two days.
“Good. There should still be enough light. Numbers?”
“A dozen, not including their…cargo.” The last thought carried a strong flavor of distaste. The slavers had hit an isolated farming hamlet the day before the company picked up their trail. According to the survivors, eleven people were missing. Anticipating the next question, Canus continued, “First two are typical slave wagons. One drover, four guards each. Third looks more like some kind of fancy carriage. Has a coachman and—“A feeling of alarm flowed through the link.
“What is it, Canus?”
“There’s a Sand-Dancer with them.”
“A blood mage? Are you sure?”
“In the carriage. Would’ve caught his scent earlier but the wind was against me. If it’s any consolation, he doesn’t seem to be expecting trouble. I can’t sense any active wards or detection spells.” Canus paused for a moment. “I’m a little hazy on the niceties of Ssylarian culture, but isn’t it unusual for a Sand-Dancer to be travelling with slavers?”
It’s more than unusual, Eldan thought to himself. The lizardmen of the Ssylarian Khanate were products of a rigid, caste-based society. Blood mages were drawn from the upper ranks of Ssylarian aristocracy, answerable only to the head of their Order and the Khan himself. Slavers were lower-caste hatchlings viewed as little better than the slaves who harvested letumol, the sword-leafed plants whose tiny golden berries once pressed and magically distilled into potions, allowed the cold-blooded Ssylarians to survive outside their desert home. To see a blood mage travelling with slavers was as akin to a senior member of the Almareni Senate sharing an afternoon carriage ride with a pack of lepers.
“Sorry. You’re right, Canus. It’s strange and I don’t like strange, especially when we’ve gone to all this trouble arranging such a pleasant little ambush.” Eldan didn’t need to mention that ambushing a party of Ssylarian slavers was one thing; attacking slavers accompanied by a blood mage was another thing entirely. Even if the ambush succeeded, the death of a high-caste Ssylarian was sure to have diplomatic consequences. The fact Eldan was acting well within Almareni law—slavery had been outlawed in the Republic for over a millennia, a crime punishable by death—wouldn’t matter to the politicians who wanted to avoid yet another war between the Republic and the Khanate. He understood their thinking, even respected it, but Eldan wasn’t a politician. He was a Swayne of Mosscreek and honor demanded he act.
Eldan turned and signaled to where Blade-Sergeant Falla lay hidden behind the weed-choked remains of a fallen birch tree. She rose gracefully, brushed off a handful of splinters clinging to her dark leathers, and made her way over to his position.
Speaking quickly and quietly, Eldan relayed the information provided by Canus, including the unexpected presence of the blood mage. Falla listened in silence, her long fingers caressing the silver-filigreed pommel of the honor dirk hanging from her belt.
“Well, Sergeant, what do you think?”
Falla replied promptly, her voice harsh, “Our main priority has to be the Sand-Dancer. The rest sound like regular slaver scum—they’re tough against unarmed civilians but no match for trained troops, let alone our boys and girls.”
The blade-sergeant cocked her head, considering. “Give me Raines and Crumb,” she named the two best shots in the company, “and I’ll personally guarantee the Snake doesn’t get off a spell.”
Eldan started to speak but quickly shut his mouth. He was uncomfortable with Falla referring to the Ssylarians as Snakes, but he realized the hard-bitten sergeant wouldn’t appreciate a lecture on the use of derogatory language, especially when it concerned the lizardmen of the Khanate.
Unlike Eldan, the blade-sergeant hadn’t grown up in Meridon, the cosmopolitan capital of the Almaren Republic where all manner of races lived together in relative peace. Nor was she a Swayne of Mosscreek, a member of the wealthy patrician family that traced its roots back to the founding of the Republic some fifteen centuries past. Falla was of yeoman stock, raised to a different set of standards. She also had more reason than most to dislike the Ssylarians. Her great-great-grandparents were refugees from Triesa, one of the first independent city-states to fall to the lizardmen when they came boiling out of the Smoldering Wastes nearly three hundred years earlier. Eldan hoped her desire for revenge wouldn’t lead her to do anything rash.
He quelled the troubling thought. “Raines and Crumb? Very well, they’re yours. Hold your fire until the carriage reaches that point.” Eldan indicated a lightening scarred tree stump some fifty feet up the trail. “We’ll wait on your signal. The rest of the company will attack as planned, concentrating on the slave wagons. One volley, then close with steel. We want to avoid casualties among the captives if possible.”
“Understood." Falla’s eyes glittered like chips of obsidian ice and Eldan sensed the grim smile beneath her hood. She saluted and turned to go.
“One more thing, Sergeant.”
She turned back. “Sir?”
“Try not to miss. Getting killed by some Ssylarian mageling would ruin my heroic self-image. It would also wreak havoc on my dinner plans with Lady Dorriane.”
Falla gave an amused snort. The lieutenant’s amorous adventures were a constant source of entertainment to the other members of the company. Eldan wasn’t handsome in the classical sense but he had an open, engaging manner and an infectious smile, both of which proved irresistible to women. The company had an ongoing wager—now up to 240 silver talents—on when one of his dalliances would last more than a week. It had been close to two years since Eldan had taken command of the company. Nobody had won the bet.
She said, “Don’t worry, Lieutenant. We’ll get the job done. We can’t have you missing your dinner date, can we?”
Glad to have lightened her mood, Eldan dismissed Falla with a casual wave. He reached out to Canus with his mind. “Anything new?”
“In the last two minutes? No. Would you like there to be?”
“You know, sarcasm doesn’t become you.”
“Hah. I think it fits quite nicely.”
“Wise-ass.” Eldan’s reply was tinged with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “Seriously though, good job. Now, get your furry hide back here.”
“Thanks, chief. I’m on my way,” came the whispered reply.
Eldan paused. Something had been nagging at him throughout the conversation. He realized what it was.
“Didn’t you tell me only pack-brothers can mindspeak?”
“And then only over short distances?”
“And we’re the only pack-brothers currently outside Mistleaf Forest?”
“As far as I know.”
“Which means nobody is likely to overhear us.”
“I believe that’s a safe assumption.”
“Then why in the Names of the Ancients were you whispering?”
“Because I thought it was funny. Didn’t you?”
Eldan sighed. He should have expected the response. After all, he had known Canus for the better part of his life. In many ways he was closer to his pack-brother than to his own family, but there were moments when Canus’ peculiar sense of humor still surprised him. Eldan winced as he recalled the time he’d informed his new “brother” he wanted to grow up to be a pirate chief. Canus had found the idea vastly amusing. Eight years later, he continued to refer to Eldan as chief, much to the young lieutenant’s embarrassment. “Forget I asked. Let me know when you’re approaching the ambush point. I wouldn’t want to explain to pack-dame Argentia that your motley hide was damaged due to a case of mistaken identity.”
“Hah. My mother dotes on you. She’d probably skin me herself if she thought you needed a new cloak. You’re right about one thing: My pelt is too handsome to risk at the hands of some near-sighted humans. I’ll contact you when I’m close.”
Eldan didn’t have to wait long. Scarcely five minutes passed before he felt the feathery touch of his pack-brother’s mind. “Coming in now, chief. Tell those misfits of yours to keep calm. Not that I’m too worried. On a good day, they might be able to hit the broad side of a barn.”
A moment later, Canus came into view, running with a smooth, loping stride that propelled him over the rough terrain at a pace no man could match. He drew nearer and someone gave a low whistle of admiration. Without looking, Eldan knew the whistle came from Blade-Corporal Aleena, the newest member of the company. Aleena had joined the company just a week earlier, transferring in from the Freehold Legion. This was the first time she’d seen Canus in his natural form.
Canus quickly reached Eldan’s position. Snapping to attention, he fired off a jaunty salute. “Reporting as ordered, sir!”
Eldan eyed him suspiciously, wary of his pack-brother’s sudden enthusiasm for military courtesy. Still, he had to admit Canus cut a martial figure.
Standing nearly seven-feet tall on back-cantered legs, Eldan’s pack-brother had broad shoulders and a thick, powerful chest that tapered down to an impossibly narrow waist, all of which were covered by a silken pelt of the purest black. His sharp features boasted a pair of blazing golden eyes set above a long muzzle displaying a formidable array of fangs. Clad only in a bejeweled leather harness, a iron-capped ebony quarterstaff held loosely in one clawed hand, Canus looked like the living incarnation of some primordial war god, come to reap a bloody harvest.
Canus was a Forest Lord, a member of the reclusive race of lupine beings who dwelt deep in the heart of Mistleaf Forest, the vast and ancient woodland that ran along the northern border of the Almaren Republic. More commonly known as “wolflings”, the Forest Lords were followers of Istenna, Lady of the Woods, and Vadassa, Mistress of the Hunt. Dedicated wardens of nature, wolflings sought to avoid conflict but were formidable foes when roused to anger. They also never forgot a debt. Centuries past, Almareni legions had marched to their assistance during the Shadeskill Wars, saving the outnumbered wolflings from certain destruction. The Forest Lords had been staunch allies of the Republic ever since
Eldan motioned for Canus to join him. As his pack-brother sank down in a loose-limbed crouch beside him, Eldan caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning, he saw Blade-Corporal Aleena had partially risen from her concealed position and was staring in fascination at the Forest Lord.
Eldan grunted. “It seems you have an admirer.”
Canus turned to follow Eldan’s gaze. Catching the corporal’s eye, he favored her with a brilliant, toothy smile. The young woman dropped back out of sight. He sighed. “Poor lass. She’s obviously overwhelmed by my magnificence.”
“Oh, she’s certainly overwhelmed by something.” Eldan’s grey eyes danced with suppressed mirth, then turned serious. “I can’t afford to have the blade-corporal distracted right now.” He paused, the flavor of his thought turning apologetic. “Also, there will be woman and children among the captives, simple farmer folk. Your appearance might… startle them. Perhaps it’s time for you to shift.”
Canus acknowledged the suggestion with the flick of a tufted ear. He settled himself on the ground, legs crossed beneath him, the iron-ferruled quarterstaff placed on the ground beside him. Bowing his head, Canus closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and changed.
No matter how many times Eldan had seen his pack-brother shift, it still amazed him. Between one second and the next, Canus’ lupine form disappeared, replaced by a different but equally recognizable figure wearing the distinctive black kilt, plain black blouse and steel vambraces of Vadassan warrior-monk.
The tall, black-skinned man opened his eyes and rose to his feet in one quick, fluid motion. Reaching down, he picked up the heavy quarterstaff. He spun it in dramatic fashion, weaving through a series of sweeping figure-eights and complex parry-lunge routines. Finishing with a flurry, he struck a heroic poise. “How do I look, chief?”
Eldan studied the man’s features with a critical eye. The face was as he remembered: long and lean, dominated by a great beak of a nose and pair of dark, gold-flecked eyes peering out from beneath shaggy salt and pepper brows. Strong white teeth flashed from the midst of a thick, well-groomed beard. “You’re as handsome as ever, Canus.”
Contrary to popular belief, wolflings weren’t born shapeshifters. Their ability to shift was a gift from the goddess Istenna, a response to the fear and prejudice the Forest Lords frequently faced due to their ferocious appearance. When a wolfling reached his time of Ascension—generally around the tender age of eighty—he was able to choose a single, alternate form to assume at will. This form was known as Hamis-arca in the wolfling tongue. Roughly translated, it meant, “the face I show the outside world,” as opposed to Valodi-arcat, or, “my true face.” Being a pragmatic people, many wolflings chose to assume human form: Not only were humans a populous race whose settlements could be found throughout Valdara, but the Republic of Almaren, their ally and neighbor, was a predominantly human realm as well.
Some wolflings, however, decided on more exotic forms. During his time living among the Forest Lords, Eldan had seen wolflings transform into Aldatian river-sprites, complete with webbed feet and gills. He’d witnessed them shift into the forms of Zanbian claw warriors boasting thickly-carapaced torsos and double sets of arms ending in matched pairs of razor-sharp pincers. And finally, he’d watched in awe as an aged pack-dame, her pelt tattered and streaked with grey, became a wind dragon with a head the size of a wagon and a body bulking as large as a barn.
I wouldn’t mind seeing that dragon overhead right now, Eldan thought to himself. He snorted. Might as well wish for a squad of Blackstaffs while I’m at it. Not that a Border Watch company would rate one battle-mage, let alone a squad.
He glanced over at Canus. His pack-brother had taken up position behind the boulder and was scanning the road for signs of the slavers. Looking around, Eldan couldn’t see the rest of the company, but he could sense their presence. Confident. Eager. Deadly. The young lieutenant felt a surge of pride. On second thought, a couple of battle-mages would only slow us down.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes turned into fifteen, then twenty. Just as Eldan started to worry the slavers had made camp for the night, he heard the faint sound of wagon wheels.
The other members of the company had heard as well. A hooded head rose from concealment to take a last look around. Tall grass moved against the breeze. Soft metallic clicks announced the cocking of crossbows.
Moments later, the Ssylarian wagons came into view. As Canus had reported, the first two were typical slave wagons: long, broad-wheeled vehicles with steel cages bolted onto tough bamboo frames. Capable of carrying up to a dozen captives, each wagon was drawn by a six-horse team and accompanied by a quartet of white-robed guards mounted on fleet desert ponies. Short and slender, with blunt snouts and plain beige-pebbled skin, the guards stood in stark contrast to the inhabitant of the open-top carriage trundling up behind them.
Oh, yes. That’s definitely a Sand-Dancer, Eldan thought grimly as he studied the Ssylarian lounging in the back of the coach, noting the crimson ceremonial robe and talon-tipped fingers inlayed with runic markings. Though seated, Eldan estimated the blood mage would stand a good head taller than the any of the guards and his long reptilian face was covered in bright emerald scales showing the black-diamond patterning of the noblest Ssylarian bloodlines.
Which explains the carriage. Eldan shook his head. Only a high-caste Ssylarian would insist on travelling in that monstrosity. Not that I’m complaining. It certainly made our job much easier.
The carriage was a heavy, ornate affair constructed of black oak and decorated with gold leaf and ivory-carved panels. Drawn by a single pair of matched albino stallions, the coach might have made an impressive sight on the streets of Meridon but was wholly unsuited for use in the wilderness. The cumbersome vehicle had slowed the slavers’ pace significantly, giving the company ample time to swing around ahead of them and prepare the ambush.
A cry of frustration drew Eldan’s attention back to the slave wagons. A burly farmer was attempting to pry apart the bars of his cage by main strength. He attracted the attention of one of the guards riding alongside the wagon. Moving with deceptive speed, the Ssylarian brushed the tip of a slender glass rod against the man’s hands. The farmer bellowed in pain, but refused to release the bars. A bored expression on his face, the lizardman applied the stun rod again, this time jamming it against the man’s arm. The farmer convulsed, tiny green arcs of eldritch energy dancing over his body. His fingers opened involuntarily and he fell to the floor of the wagon, shuddering. Studying his handiwork with an air of clinical detachment, the guard gave the man another jolt. The farmer screamed. Satisfied, the Ssylarian moved away.
The casual brutality of the act enraged the young lieutenant. Bracing the small hand-held crossbow across his forearm, Eldan took aim at the slaver. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger, a strong hand gripped his shoulder. Tearing his gaze away from the guard, Eldan found himself looking into Canus’ eyes.
“Patience, my pack-brother, patience.” The wolfling’s mind-voice was stern. “Have you forgotten the blade-sergeant? Would you risk alerting the blood mage before she’s in position? Gamble the lives of your men to satisfy your sense of outrage?” Canus sighed. When he continued, his tone was softer. “Make no mistake, Eldan. Like you, my spirit cries out with the need to wreak vengeance upon these honorless creatures. Yet we are hunters. We need to put aside our emotions, to stalk our prey with a clear mind and a calm heart. Only then will we be able to bring Vadassa’s justice down upon the heads of the rossz-zuzavae.”
Eldan lowered the crossbow. Rossz-zuzavae—roughly translated into Common as “defilers of the natural order”—meant beings too inherently malevolent to be capable of living in harmony with others. It was one of most deadly insults in the wolfling language. For Canus to label the Ssylarian slavers “rossz-zuzavae” showed the depths of the Forest Lord’s anger. It also committed him to their destruction, even at the cost of his own life. And where one pack-brother led, another was bound to follow.
The two friends clasped arms in the wolfling manner, forearm to forearm. Canus intoned, “May Vadassa bless our hunt—“
“—and protect our pack.” Eldan finished the prayer.
Both slave wagons were now past the ambush point and nearly even with Eldan’s position. Eldan felt his pulse quicken. Forcing himself to take deep, steadying breaths, he targeted the driver of the first wagon.
As the blood mage’s carriage reached the tree stump, Falla sprang the trap. The hiss of arrows and the deeper, angrier hum of a crossbow bolt split the air, accompanied by cries of “Almaren! Almaren! For the Republic and the Watch!”
Eldan loosed his bolt and saw it strike home, throwing the driver from the wagon. Around him, the other members of the company rose from concealment and released a well-aimed volley at the Ssylarians surrounding the slave wagons. Seconds later, the driver of the other wagon was down, as were two of the guards. A third slaver was slumped in his saddle, pawing weakly at the pair of arrows embedded in his stomach.
Eldan discarded the crossbow, drew his longsword, and charged the stunned survivors. Quick as he was, Canus was faster. Singling out the slaver nearest the wagons and the now cheering prisoners, the wolfling-turned-human bounded toward him, quarterstaff spinning.
The slaver, quicker to react than his companions, dropped his stun rod and unsheathed the pair of matched sabers hanging from his saddlebow. Urging his horse forward, the Ssylarian launched a whirlwind attack against the wolfling.
Though enthusiastic, the guard lacked the skill to fight with two blades. Canus easily deflected the blows with quick flicks of his staff, waiting for an opening. The Ssylarian extended himself once too often and Canus pounced. Batting the blades aside, the wolfling flipped his staff level and thrust it like a spear. The iron-capped butt of the heavy quarterstaff slammed into the slaver’s chest, crushing his sternum. A bewildered look on his reptilian face, the lizardman toppled from the saddle and fell under the churning hoofs of his mount.
Eldan didn’t have time to congratulate Canus on his performance. Another Ssylarian, this one on foot, was trying his best to skewer the young lieutenant. Unlike Canus’ opponent, the guard wielded his sabers with the confidence of a practiced fighter. He was also fast, as fast as the duelmasters Eldan had trained under in his youth. Eldan was forced back; only his greater reach and the length of the longsword allowed him to fend off the slaver’s flickering blades. Thinking quickly, he leapt backwards, snatched the dagger from his belt and threw it at the guard’s face. Instinctively, the Ssylarian raised his blades to block, leaving his torso unguarded for a fraction of a second. More than enough time for Eldan to lunge forward and smoothly run him through.
Wrenching his blade free of the corpse, Eldan quickly surveyed the battle. The situation seemed well in hand. The injured slaver had succumbed to his wounds. Fallen from his horse, his body was draped across a moss-covered log, the arrows that killed him poking through white robes streaked with black Ssylarian blood. Two of the three remaining guards were dead as well, cut down by Corporal Aleena and the other members of the company who’d followed Eldan’s charge. The final guard was—
Eldan dropped and rolled to the left as an arrow whirred by, grazing his right arm. Hissing in pain, Eldan came to one knee and looked over his shoulder. Forty feet away, the last slaver was sitting astride his mount. Instead of fleeing, he was already fitting another arrow to the string of his bow.
Time seemed to slow. Canus was charging forward, roaring. Aleena was desperately trying to unsling her bow. Other members of the company were racing toward the guard. Eldan knew they would never reach him before he fired. The Ssylarian took careful aim…and fell backward off his mount as a crossbow bolt blossomed from the center of his forehead.
Stunned by his sudden reprieve, Eldan turned and saw Sergeant Falla hurrying toward him. Behind her were Raines and Crumb. Raines was rewinding his crossbow. The blade-private gave Eldan a laconic wave.
“Sir! Lieutenant! Are you okay?” Falla’s voice was filled with concern.
Eldan laughed. “I’m much better now, Sergeant, thanks to you and your merry band.” Sheathing his sword, he rose to his feet as Canus came bounding up, his face anxious. Eldan sent him a silent message of reassurance; his pack-brother tended to be a worrier where his friends were concerned.
“I’m sorry, sir. We would have been here sooner but we ran into a bit of trouble.” The sergeant gestured back along the trail.
“The mage?” Eldan asked, examining his arm as he spoke. The arrow had left a four-inch gash across the outside of his bicep. Though shallow, the wound was bleeding freely. He retrieved a linen bandage from his belt-pouch and quickly wrapped the cut.
“No, he went down easily enough. It was the coachman. Someone missed an easy shot.” Eldan noticed Crumb wince at the sergeant’s biting tone. Falla continued, “He turned out to be quite good with a blade.”
“I doubt he was an ordinary servant. More likely a bodyguard who doubled as a coachman. Remember, we’re talking about a blood mage here. Assassination is the preferred method of advancement within their Order. I’m actually surprised he only had the one guard.” Eldan chuckled. “Or maybe I’m not. He probably felt safer traveling the wilds of Almaren than he did at home. In any case, that’s neither here nor there. The blood mage is dead, as are the slavers. And we have some tidying up to do.”
The blade-sergeant nodded. “Orders, sir?”
“We’ll make camp right here. Take Raines, Crumb and Holmes. Free the captives and do what you can for the sick or injured. There’s a stream nearby and they’ll want to wash off the stench of those cages. That’s fine. Just make sure one of you accompanies them—night is approaching and these mountains harbor dangers greater than Ssylarians.”
“You’ve got it, Lieutenant.” Falla trotted off, the three privates following in her wake.
“Take Longshanks, Simms, Locksley and Marion. Search the Ssylarians. Any coin or jewelry you find, hand over to the farmers. It probably won’t amount to much, but it should help them start rebuilding. The rest—weapons, horses, harness and tackle—go with us. Once you’ve finished with the Ssylarians, put their bodies in the wagons. We’ll drop them off with the high constable in Breckinford. He can notify the Ssylarian ambassador that another “non-existent” slaving party has had an unfortunate accident.”
“Yes, sir.” The blade-corporal saluted and moved away.
Eldan looked at Canus. “The rossz-zuzavae are destroyed, the blood mage slain, our pack members uninjured. Vadassa truly did bless our hunt.”
The wolfling turned his gaze to the slave wagons. Raines and Crumb had broken the bolts of the cages and were helping the captives to the ground. His reply was soft. “She did indeed, pack-brother. She did indeed.”
The two friends stood in companionable silence, watching the happy scene. Farmers were embracing each other and their rescuers; Falla had started a large campfire and two haunches of fresh venison—retrieved from the company’s packs—were slowly roasting over the coals; Holmes was playing a jaunty tune on his ever-present lute, adding to the festive air.
After a time, Eldan shook himself. “They’ll need someone to escort them home. I’ll have Sergeant Falla—“
“Lieutenant Swayne! Sir!” Corporal Aleena was hurrying toward him.
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, sir, but we’ve found something you should see.” She held out an intricately-carved wooden tube, a bit longer than her hand. “It was on the Sand-Dancer, hidden beneath his robes.”
Eldan took the tube and examined it closely. He gave a low whistle. Pointing to a small engraving on the cap of the tube—a saber crossed with a lightning bolt—he said, “This scroll case bears the seal of the Sandlord, head of the blood mages.”
Aleena shifted nervously. “Do you think it might be spelled, sir?”
“Canus, can you sense anything?”
“Canus says not.” Eldan opened the case and removed a single scroll. “My Ssylarian is limited, but I’ll be interested to see what type of message would be carried under the Sandlord’s personal seal.” Unrolling the parchment, he began to read.
A few minutes later, he finished. Rerolling the scroll, he carefully replaced it in the case, and then tied the case to his belt. In a quiet voice, he said, “Corporal Aleena, please ask the blade-sergeant to join us.”
Eldan held up a hand. “Please, just get the blade-sergeant.”
“Yes, sir.” Aleena ran off.
“What’s going on, chief?”
“Not now, Canus.”
A minute later, the blade-corporal returned, followed by Sergeant Falla. The blade-sergeant asked, “What’s the rush, lieutenant?”
“There’s been a change of plans.” Eldan said shortly. “Canus and I will be riding immediately for Meridon.”
“Please don’t ask. I’ll—I’ll try to answer later…if I can. What I need you to do now is listen carefully and follow my orders to the letter.” He looked at his officers. “Believe me, I’d tell you if I could. You just need to trust me.”
“We do, sir. Absolutely.” Falla reply was quick and sure. Aleena nodded firmly in agreement.
“Good. Here’s what I need you to do: First, you will destroy all evidence this ambush ever occurred. Burn everything remotely Ssylarian: the bodies, the wagons, weapons, supplies, even the coins and jewelry we were going to give the farmers. Scatter the ashes to the winds and then hide the remains of the fire. Second, we were going to escort the captives back to their village. You still will, but once there, you will make stay and sure they don’t speak to anyone outside the village about what has occurred. If this requires you to place them under arrest and confine them to their homes, so be it.”
“But sir, they’re free citizens of the Republic!”
“I know, Sergeant. I know. I don’t like it either, but you’ll understand later.” Eldan thought for a moment. “If it helps, tell them that I’ve ridden to the capital to ask the government to relocate them to a new hamlet, safe from slavers and closer to the main market towns. Let them know that the government will only agree to this if they don’t talk about the raid. Make them think the Senate is concerned that news of slave raids might cause panic.”
The blade-sergeant slowly nodded. “That might work. But what happens when they aren’t relocated?”
“I’ll just have to make sure that they are.” Eldan’s voice was grim.
“Sir, are you certain about all this?”
“Yes. Now, you have your orders and we must ride. Vadassa’s blessings on you both.”
“Thank you, sir. We won’t fail you.” Falla saluted and strode away, Aleena close behind.
Eldan started jogging toward the small, wooded copse where the company had hidden their mounts prior to the ambush. Canus quickly caught up.
“We need to get to Meridon as soon as possible and talk to my father.”
“Your father? But you haven’t spoken to him since you joined the Border Watch. He’s—“
“He’s an arrogant, ruthless old bastard. Yes. But he’s also a patriot and the former Speaker of the Senate. He knows the government backwards and forwards and he’ll know who we can trust.”
“Trust? What are you talking about? What is going on?”
“As I said, my Ssylarian is limited. From what I could understand from the scroll, there’s a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic. It’s headed by a group of senators—no names—who call themselves “The Five.” He fell silent.
“And that’s it—all I could understand. I did mention my Ssylarian is limited, didn’t I?”
Not another word was exchanged until, as the pack-brothers spurred their horses northwest toward Meridon, Canus asked “What are we going to do, chief?”
“I don’t know, pack-brother, I don’t know.”