Chapter 7: A Captive Audience

Krumpus stood face to face with a half dozen Saot soldiers. They sat astride horses and carried a wide assortment of weapons as they stared at the man. Krumpus held his staff with Meu wrapped around it as she maintained her stone form. She appeared to be something of an ornament and made the staff look rather fantastic. The staff was also much heavier and had a strange balance thanks to the serpent. Krumpus wondered if she could take a strike from a sword as he considered his options.


"We heard song," one of the soldiers spoke. He did not speak the strange language of the Saots, which was good, because neither did Krumpus. Instead, the soldier spoke Ministrian – a language Krumpus did know. The shaman looked closer at the soldiers and realized that although they wore Saot style uniforms, they were in fact Ministrians. "Was it you?" The soldier continued.


Krumpus raised his staff and danced as before. He hummed and hawed as he swung the staff about and got a feel for the weapon's weight. After several seconds, he stopped the demonstration and shrugged.


The soldiers nodded to each other as they recognized the noise. "Do you not speak?"


Krumpus stuck out his tongue. It was a mangled and clubbish instrument, thick with heavy purple scarring. Aversion showed on the soldier's faces.


Can you sign? The officer asked in Tallian Hand.


Yes. Krumpus replied, surprised by the officer's use of the silent language.


"Well, come along," the officer turned his gaze from the shaman and waved him closer. "We can't have you out here in the wilds – there's a war on after all."


Krumpus knew it was a call to surrender. For a moment, he thought to run, but he was tired from the all dancing, and these fake Saots had horses. Most alarmingly, more and more shock troops poured around the bend. There were a dozen, then two dozen, then three, then four... The stream of people continued to grow. It wasn't just soldiers. Commoners stepped past the healer on the wide road under the power of their own feet. Men, women, and children stepped past with heavy packs and suspicion on their faces. A long train of wagons appeared, piled high, and covered with heavy canvas.


"Give us the staff," the officer commanded as Krumpus watched the crowd.


For several seconds, Krumpus frowned at the man. He held the staff tight as a knot of men condensed around him.


"Come now," the officer encouraged. "Do not make us take it from you."


With a sigh, Krumpus held out the staff. There were far too many hostiles. They'd take the staff and they'd give him a beating to remember if he wasn't obliging. The officer took it. One of the other soldiers took his pack and searched his goods.


Ministrians continued to pour around the blind corner. As the soldiers searched his bag, Krumpus stared at the passing caravan and wondered how he missed the approach of so many! Meu spoke in his head. I too was caught in our reverie. I did not notice them until it was too late. She apologized.


"Fine knives, needles, bandages, perhaps a few poisons." The soldier reported to his captain. "If he's some kind of surgeon, he could have a few more coin," the soldier frowned.


Poisons? Krumpus cocked his head and stared at the man.


"Some heathen witchdoctor?" The officer speculated as he too rifled through the bag. "Have you any experience against the waokie, and their various venoms and potions?"


Krumpus frowned and shook his head. He'd never heard such a word.


Satisfied, the officer held the bag out to Krumpus. "Our hands are full. If you want to keep it, you'll have to carry it," the officer said.


Krumpus thought that was a dumb thing to say. Of course he wanted to keep it! He snatched the bag away and held his hand out for the staff. The officer frowned at Krumpus as he tied the staff to his saddle.


"Bring him along," the officer stated and nudged his horse forward. One guard held his spear on Krumpus as another bound his hands and tied him to a long line.


As they marched, Meu spoke in the healer's head. Do not worry. We will dance again, she said, her words tinged with amusement.


How long can you stay like that? He thought at her.


For hours. Meu revealed. For days if I must. After that, I become very hungry. Do you know where they take us?


No, Krumpus admitted.


I doubt we will be their guests for long, Meu told him with confidence. We will escape in the night, when we make camp. I will find you. Will you wait for me?


Krumpus agreed. He had no plan of his own.


As they marched, Krumpus studied each new field. He hoped to find foxbane, but there was none to be seen. Hour after hour, the caravan continued its slow crawl eastward. The sun dropped behind the mountains and the world grew dark. Although the caravan slowed, it did not stop. As the darkness encroached, the soldiers kept the commoners moving, and Krumpus wondered how long they could hope to march with the sun down.


The venom is wearing thin, Meu warned Krumpus. We will not be able to speak much longer. She revealed. But know this: I will find you.


Her words were garbled. Krumpus could barely understand her. She had to repeat herself several times before Krumpus finally caught her meaning. It did not bother him. He was confident he would see her again.


An hour or so into the dark, the walls of a massive fort appeared on the horizon. Large wooden towers stood over a twenty foot fence made of tree trunks stuck vertical next to one another. A knot of Trohls huddled outside the gate in nothing but beggar's rags. They curled up against the timbers of the wall with their faces hidden, ragged cloaks pulled tight against the chill evening air. The guards of the fort ignored these men. Most of the caravan did likewise, though a few took pity and offered bits of bread, or cheese, or other small things. "The blessings of Naharahna upon you," one said to a beggar as he held out a piece of bread. Krumpus stared at the beggars as he passed. Their hands were stunted, little more than base clubs with thin hollow fingers curled in uncomfortable knots. Despite the dirt and grime, Krumpus realized they were all rather young men. He was horrified to note that most were nothing more than boys.


The guards waved the caravan through the open gates. Inside the fort were several wooden structures and no end of massive tents. There was a large fenced area where the Ministrians kept more prisoners. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Bouge shuffled about behind the high slat fence that formed a paltry border around their open air prison. The fence looked weak in most spots – though it was being improved on the near side. Heavily armed patrols circled the pen, as did a series of small towers. Many of the prisoners looked malnourished. They were mostly women, children, and the elderly. Krumpus realized this prison had everything to do with the empty lands to the west. There was indeed a war! Yet, the Ministrians were dressed as Saots? Why? What sort of subterfuge were they engaged in?


Krumpus turned and looked about the rest of the fort. The other half of the camp was occupied by barracks, sheds, stables, cabins, towers, tent: everything an invading force might need, and several things it might want. There were clerks, cooks, urchins, and priestesses galore. There were hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, all wearing Saot uniforms, though a heavy majority were certainly Ministrians. Krumpus did not recognize the crests they wore – but then Krumpus knew only a few of the Saot houses: the Phoenix of Danyan, the Lion of Land's End, the Rose of Hyber Pass, the Kite of Gaurring. He knew only those that traded in Hearthstone, and a few noteworthy houses besides, like the king's own. But there were said to be as many Saot houses as there were Trohl militias, which was an impressive thing indeed! Among the Jindleyak alone, there were easily a hundred different militias!


The caravan dispersed among the camp. Guards pushed Krumpus toward the large pen of prisoners.


"Non," the officer shook his head. "He goes to the Corpus."


Instead of putting him in the prison, the guards led Krumpus through the fort all the way to the east wall. They entered a building with a single large room. To one side of the building was an assortment of tabards, all graced with various Saot houses. The other side had the pitch black tabards of Ministrian shock troops. Krumpus frowned as he stared at the uniforms of Minist. He'd not seen a single man wearing the black of the Empress– except that his guard now changed from Saot to Ministrian uniforms as if it was the most natural thing to trade between the two.


Once all the soldiers were changed, they led Krumpus down a wooden stairway. Down, down into the earth they went, two stories at least. The stairs stopped, and although they turned in circles as they came down the stairs, Krumpus was sure he faced east. This meant they traveled under the outer wall of the fort. Krumpus wondered if they took him outside. Would they kill him and steal the staff? He mentally prepared himself to fight and run. He did not like his odds as he glanced about his numerous guards. Still, he had a few tricks up his sleeves, and they'd be more effective in the dark of night.


After several hundred feet of smooth tunnel, the group came to another stairway, quite like the first. They stepped up, up out of the earth, and found themselves in what seemed an empty closet. This building was a barracks. They marched through and out of the building, and Krumpus found himself in another fort altogether! The high towers of this camp faced west, and were manned by Ministrians in their proper garb – but It wasn't only Ministrians. There were also Bouge militia along the wall. This camp was smaller than the other fort, not that it mattered, since the men were secretly fighting for the same side. Krumpus wondered if the Bouge about the camp were privy to the truth and thought most of them must not be.


A large stone tower dominated the northwest corner of the camp. There were several stone structures about it – the only stone structures he'd seen in either camp. The soldiers led Krumpus into the tower, through a guard room, and into a small room with nothing but a table at the center. The table had leather straps to secure the hands of the prisoner, but the guards did not bother. They all left the room, except for the officer, who waited with Krumpus. He sat quietly as the officer held the staff with Meu wrapped around it. Krumpus wondered if Meu might make a move, but she never twitched. Finally, they were joined by a rather large and decorative man.


"Majoris," the officer stood and saluted the fat man.


Fedring, the Corpus Majoris of Camp Calderhal frowned at the officer. "Leverkusen, I am a busy man, I do not have time to advise on every Trohl you find in the wilds," he waved an impatient hand at Krumpus.


Leverkusen gave a deep bow. "I do apologize, your grace. I assure you this is a special case. He carried this staff," the officer lifted the weapon and held it out for inspection.


Fedring took the heavy staff and looked over the wyrm with increasing interest. "It is very solid," he studied the fine detail of the serpent. He poked about her jeweled eyes and tugged at her fangs. "You have done the right thing," he smiled.


Krumpus scowled at the man though he was roundly ignored. As he set the staff aside, the Majoris turned on the shaman. "Why do you have this?" he asked in the Bouge dialect.


"He doesn't speak. He is a mute," Leverkusen explained.


"Can you write?" the Majoris continued in the Bouge tongue.


"He knows Tallian Hand," Leverkusen shrugged.


Fedring glared at the officer. "And this is not the first thing you mention?"


"There is too much to tell," Levrkusen admitted. "Indeed, he knows our language."


Fedring continued to glare at the man.


"I never said he was stupid. Just mute," Leverkusen shrugged.


Slowly, Fedring turned from the captain and glared at Krumpus instead. Is this true? Fedring asked in Tallian Hand.


Yes. Krumpus gestured, and wondered that so many Ministrians seemed to be studying the silent language.


"Why do you have this staff?!" Fedring repeated and slammed his fist on the table.


It is mine. Krumpus replied.


Fedring looked toward Leverkusen, "What's in his bag?"


"Bandages, knives, poisons," Leverkusen shrugged.


"A doctor of some sort?" Fedring turned from Leverkusen and faced the Trohl. "Is this a staff of office? Is it an award for services rendered?"


Krumpus shook his head. It is a wyrm.


Fedring slapped Krumpus across the top of his head. "Obstinate! I can see it is a wyrm! What does it represent?! What office?! What charge?! Or will you tell me you made this?!" He snapped.


Krumpus glared at the man but kept his peace.


Fedring lifted the staff and continued to study it. "Put him in a cell here. There's no reason to quarter him with the chattel."


"Here, in the tower?"


"Yes – and do keep him out of sight!" Fedring barked. "We don't need the militias bothering us about another Trohl prisoner!"


Leverkusen gave a nod and grabbed Krumpus by the arm. "Come along."


Before they could leave, Fedring waved them back into the room. "Captain, how was the road? Was there any trouble from the waokie?" He began again.


"There were plenty of traps. We lost four men and a child in Valcovour's Pass, otherwise the journey was uneventful."


"They have been quiet of late," Fedring frowned. "Did you bring the bodies with you?"


Leverkusen gave a nod. "We shall bury them tomorrow with the rising of the sun."


"Good," Fedring said. "Maybe if we deprive them of the meat, they'll stop with these traps."


"Sir, I must tell you, the traps are increasingly more elaborate. Initially, only the child got caught. We lost the men as they tried to retrieve her body. You see, there were traps within the trap. It took my men almost an hour to get the whole mess sorted."


"You lost four men to secure a mere child?" Fedring frowned.


Leverkusen gulped. "Sir, I was ordered to leave no one behind, dead or alive."


"How old was this girl?"


"Nine, ten... twelve years at the most," Leverkusen hedged.


"Next time, leave the child," Fedring snapped. "The lives of four soldiers are not worth the meat of a mere girl."


"Yes sir," Leverkusen said. "We should not lose any if we had a counter to their rot..." he began.


"Then you will let me know when you discover it?" Fedring glared. "Until then, leave the surgeons to their work! They certainly have enough of it without you pestering them!"


"Yes sir. I only make a point that..."


"You need not make it at all!" Fedring interrupted. "We are well aware of what the sweet rot costs!"


"Yes sir," Leverkusen stiffened.


"You are excused," Fedring snorted.


With a deep bow, Leverkusen led Krumpus from the room.


What were these waokie? Krumpus wondered. Was it one of the Bouge militias? Perhaps a resistance force? What was this sweet rot? He shook his head. There was always some new and elaborate way for men to die. To think on it made the shaman sad. There was so much sickness in the world, so much pain and torment. If it wasn't the distress killing men, it was this sweet rot. And if it wasn't some sickness, it was men killing men, with metal, for metal. Men poked each other with their swords and arrows to obtain a few more bits of copper. There was no end to the fear, hate, and corruption of men. How was it possible that so many worshipped nothing and believed only in scarcity?


Down a flight of narrow stairs, Leverkusen turned Krumpus over to two massive men. They took his bag and his cloak, and led him to a small dark cell with no windows. With a huff and a snort, the guards left him alone in the cell with nothing but a nub of candle and a shabby blanket. In the dim light of the candle, Krumpus considered the events of the day. He searched for foxbane, met a wyrm, was captured by Ministrians, and discovered the fate of so many Bouge peasants. Now, he was stripped of his possessions and locked in a cell for no particular reason at all!


Still, he had his health.


Krumpus stretched and listened to the pulse of blood in his ears: he had his health and that meant everything! The rest of it could and would change as long as he stayed healthy. Besides, there was a wyrm in the camp, and it meant to set him free! They'd escape. Somehow, they'd escape. The one true god wouldn't give Krumpus away so easily – or so he hoped.


Krumpus decided to inspect his cell. The floor was dirt and the walls were stones set in mortar. On one side was a cot. On the other was a small drain. He lifted the metal grate off the drain and realized it didn't go anywhere. There was just a hole in the ground, maybe a foot deep, no wider than his arm, with a dried bit of filth about the bottom. Krumpus was bothered by the very sturdy construction of the room, but he was not surprised. The tower was old and well built. It was certainly much older and better constructed than the dueling forts.


Now that was a thing to consider! Two forts faced each other, one filled with Ministrians, dressed as Saots. Its soldiers heavily outnumbered the force of the second camp: Ministrians dressed as Ministrians, with a contingent of Bouge allies. Essentially, it was Ministrians facing Ministrians, with a tunnel to get from one fort to the other. Whatever happened here was nothing more than an elaborate hoax.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Carringten and Creigal sat across from Baet as the guard began his report in earnest.


"I was unable to find the thief," Baet began with a bit of a smirk, "but I managed an intimate and illuminating conversation with Banifourd."


Creigal was intrigued to hear this. He leaned toward his guard. "And what did he say?"


"We are duped. Humbert turned toward Land's End at Gaetilly," Baet began with a frown. "If we mean to get away, let us go the opposite way, through Minist," he suggested. "We could take a ship south and be in Gaurring in a month."


"Minist," Creigal spit the word. "I have no interest in the Empire. No. If Humbert went to Land's End. We go to Land's End."


"The road will be heavily monitored," Carringten replied. "We will be hounded all the way to Solveny – if not beyond."


"No road is safe for us," Creigal surmised. "Drefford will send men in every direction. I only hope they send few men north, along the Trohl road. Once we reach Hearthstone, we will turn south. It is just as likely that Humbert continues north, and we will find him in one of the Trohl cities. Indeed, we have no idea where he intends to go."


Carringten shook his head. "Drefford will have his men out in force tonight, and one of us needs a good deal of rest," Carringten looked to Baet. "If we take the Trohl road, let us leave in the wee hours. That is when the watch will be most lax."


Creigal nodded his agreement. "What of the others? What of Bence?"


"Bence is a traitor. The others are all dead," Baet reported.


There was a rage in Carringten's eyes as he stared at the junior guard. "And Banifourd? Did you add him to the growing list of dead?"


"I left him unconscious, in a growing pool of his own blood, so it is possible," Baet shrugged.


"It would have been easier if you killed him proper," Carringten said.


"I had no orders," Baet replied. "I certainly gave him a beating to remember, but he was very forthcoming. I do not think he lied – except to blame it all on Garf."


"Is it a moment of weakness to leave a defeated enemy alive, or a moment of strength?" Creigal considered. "If Banifourd dies, Drefford will assume it is us that did it, and that we know the truth of things. If he lives, then he will confirm we know the truth of things. Either way, it is the same."


Carringten set his hand on Baet's shoulder and gave the guard a warm squeeze. Baet tried not to wince as Carringten put his hand directly on the teeth marks left by Pearl. "You've done well," Carringten smiled. "Get some sleep."


"There is one more thing to speak of," Baet stated. "Count Drefford has an inordinate number of men. I should not think he needs so many just to patrol the streets of Wibbeley."


"Men?" Carringten asked. "And how many men does he have?"


Baet shook his head. "I took no count – but there seemed quite an excess."


"What do you make of it?" Creigal asked with a puzzled look.


Unsure, Baet shrugged and said the first thing that came to mind. "I feel that he prepares for strife. Perhaps it is because of all the Ministrians. There are a lot of the Empire's shock troops in the city."


"It is not a city," Carringten noted. "It is but a town."


"It is an awfully large town," Baet replied. "There are smaller cities in the south."


"Population has nothing to do with cities and towns. The designation is strictly political," Creigal answered.


"Would a town have more men?" Baet asked.


"Usually less," Creigal answered. "But as you noted, Wibbeley is quite big."


Baet shook his head. "Drefford has too many men. My gut tells me he prepares for a war."


Creigal and Carringten eyed each other and considered the implications. "We'll keep it in mind," Carringten stated.


Baet smiled, pleased that he had mentioned it. Now finished with his report, Baet collected Haddelton's blanket and made a bed in a loft. For a second, he lay on his back – but the wounds from Pearl's nails and teeth were a nasty reminder of his hard day. He rolled onto his stomach and closed his eyes. For the time, guilt subsided and Baet wondered if he might meet a kind, sane version of Pearl in his dreams. Maybe, just maybe, he thought as he remembered the smooth touch of her skin, her countless freckles, and the light in her eyes as she smiled. Sleep came quick to the guard.