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The Holiday Delayed my Latest Betrayal

Wow, how’s that for a title? Sounds ominous! And, I guess, that’s kind of fitting given the events that take place in this first part of chapter 4 of Betrayal’s Hands.

 

Chapter 4

T’leren strode down the road away from the city. She’d never before felt such freedom. The day was bright, the sky clear and blue with a faint wind that cooled her skin, and the world lay before her with its multitude of choices.

An hour later, she decided that she was a fool, sitting on a rock at the side of the dusty road to remove her shoe. A blister had formed on her heel and her legs ached.

“I don’t believe the cobbler meant these shoes to take this punishment.” She spoke aloud, though no one was around. Staring morosely at her shoe, she tried to decide what to do. Finally, she came to her conclusion, slipping off her other shoe, and tying them together by the ribbon laces. Slinging them over her shoulder she stepped back onto the road. With the dust already coating her toes, she set off again.

It still seemed a wonderful thing, this freedom of action and purpose. As she contemplated her new world a village came into view. Villages this close to the city were all large and in good repair, and each boasted an inn to house travelers who came from far away and wished to spare the expense of city inns. T’leren entered the outskirts of the village, drawing the occasional odd look from the villagers for being a well dressed single female alone.

Entering the dim common room of the inn, T’leren moved to the bar. She quickly drew the attention of the grim looking innkeeper from where he was stocking several freshly cleaned cups behind the bar.

“I would like a meal and a room for the night,” she said, enunciating clearly and respectfully. After all, she was in his world now, even though by all rights she was of far higher station than he.

The barkeep studied her for a minute, a scar on his cheek that ran over across his jaw twitching a little, then shook his head. “No rooms available, miss,” he said.

T’leren felt her lower lip tremble. She took a deep breath and calmed it. Behind the man stood a pegboard with several room keys on it. She looked at the keys and then back at him. He shrugged, “Them’s all reserved, sorry to say.”

T’leren nodded. For a long and precarious moment she considered letting slip who she was, then she would see how fast a room might be made available. Her mouth opened and she spoke, “I see, how far is it to the next town?”

“A day’s ride or so, if you head to the west. North outta here will put you half a day or so of walking to Halburg, a right decent little farming town,” he said, clearly relieved that she was going to make no issue of it.

T’leren thanked him and walked out of the inn, slipping her shoes back off when she was back on the road. Her blister had split open and was bleeding, but even with a limp that cut into her pace, she hoped to make Halburg on or before nightfall.

 

* * * *

 

A small group of men and women gathered in the shadows of a tanner’s workshop. Among them were Corillius and four others. He looked into the darkened face of each person, judging how their time in Duth Darek had changed them. They were on the edge of the markets where the slaves were held.

Slavery was a forbidden practice among the Free Peoples of Nordlamar, and the squalor that many of Aradmathian slaves were kept in was unfit for pigs destined for slaughter. Each wore a visage that promised no mercy for any who came in their way.

“I’ve bribed a few locals for information, and tortured others for more,” Corillius said, his voice low but meaningful. “Our people are being held in the barn over there, behind the public cages and the stage. They are being fattened up before being sold, as well as being disciplined to make them better slaves.”

The squad leaders muttered oaths at this, and Corillius nodded in agreement with their anger. One woman spat in contempt.

“There are six doors to it: two on our end, the eastern one; a large one for wagons on the south; one on the north; and another two on the western face. We have five groups. Everybody will take a smaller door and once inside, Veera, take your squad to the south and secure that door and try to find a wagon in case some of our people are injured,” Corillius said.

“On the way out we’ll need a distraction. Arrik, your squad is to open the other slave cages and set them loose. If we’re on a wagon then as many as possible will ride upon it, but if need be every one of us will run alongside to defend it so our countrymen can be returned.”

Arrik nodded, the red stubble growing back on his cheeks from the flowing red beard he’d been forced to shave to come on the mission.

“Captain,” Veera said, looking at the other squad leaders as if to be sure of what she said before it was uttered. “What if we can’t get them out?”

Corillius nodded thoughtfully. He’d considered the possibility, but in hopes of it never reaching that stage he’d given it as little thought as possible. “We kill them if they can’t fight beside us, and not a one of us to be taken alive. Kill your own warriors if you must, understood?”

Everyone nodded, sobered by the thought that, after coming so far, some farther than they’d ever journeyed in their lives, they might die unknown and abandoned. To a Nordlamar citizen, freedom was worth more than life.

“Good, then let’s be off. They have a bell that tolls on the hour, by my reckoning we should be in place by the next toll. Go on the last bell.”

Without any whispered words of good luck they were gone, sneaking back through the darkness to their squads to relay the orders and to move into position. Corillius nodded in recognition of their skills and attitude. He was proud of them; how well they’d come together so quickly. He moved back to his own squad and they moved towards the northernmost door on the east side of the barn.

They rushed the door with the fourth stroke of the bell.. The lock was a simple latch that gave with a kick. The door smashed open, startling a pair of sleeping guards awake from a nearby table. Before they could do more than figure out they were under attack the Nordlamar warriors were moving down a hallway and wiping blood from their blades.

Elsewhere the other squads met with similar success. Deep within the heart of the Kingdom the guards were lazy and soft. Security was something that protected a fat man’s purse from pickpockets, not from attack by a band of highly trained enemy soldiers. In fifteen minutes every Aradmathian guardsman was put to the sword and the building was theirs.

The captive Nordlamarians could scarcely believe what was happening to them. They were all hale and hearty, with a few recovering injuries here and there but nothing to stop them from being fully mobile and able to wield a weapon. Corillius looked them over long and hard, looking for Annalyse, but finally had to admit defeat.

“Where is your captain?” He asked once he’d gotten them settled down.

“That bastard Makan took her,” a man said. “They took her to a brothel or something,” another woman said.

Corillius’ eyes widened and his fists clenched in rage. Anna was a maiden! To be raped and tortured like this was unforgivable! Moreover, she was his cousin. “Where is she?” he asked.

The one that had spoken before shook his head in dismay. “We all love her, captain, and there’s not a one of us that wouldn’t lay down our lives for her. When that bastard raped her before us all, then let his men have their way with her, we’d any of us have traded places with her in a minute.”

Corillius shook his head and glanced away, tears or rage and agony at hearing the news coming to his eyes. “How could this happen?” he wondered aloud.

“She fought back, Sir,” another said. “Young Valus had his head put on a block and she spoke out, telling them to leave him alone. When they couldn’t shut her up, they beat her and still she railed at them. Finally she’d nothing left but insults for Makan, trying to draw his anger to her instead of the others. She even told him that if he didn’t kill every one of us then one of us or someone else would hunt his family down and kill them one by one and save him for the last.”

Corillius almost chuckled at the vow. It sounded like something his cousin would say. She was given to speaking her mind and giving in to her temper. “What happened next?” He asked.

“The whore-son killed the boy and then, right there in Valus’ blood, he stripped her naked and had his way with her,” she continued, fresh tears running down her face at the memory.

“And you’ve no idea where she’s at now?” Corillius persisted, staring at them all.

“I just heard that Makan had her taken to a private brothel. One of the guards was joking about it,” the same mane spoke again.

Corillius nodded. “Thank you. Grab what spare weapons you can and clothing as well, then follow my warriors out of here. They’ll get you out of the city in small groups, and you’ll meet up again in a day or so. If not, my warriors know what to do, but if you find yourself separated head to the north, northwest, and do anything you can to get back home.”

“Captain, you’re not coming with us?” Veera asked, looking at him.

“I hope to meet you,” he said. “But I’ll not leave without Annalyse. She’s a symbol to the army and the people.”

“But Sir, you don’t know where she is,” Veera persisted.

“I’ll find her. Nobody gets left behind, and nobody makes a slave or a whore of a Nordlandiir!”

“Captain, we’ll come with you!” Three of the former captives stepped forward, then the rest followed suit.

It made Corillius’ chest swell with pride to see the loyalty his cousin had instilled in her warriors. He shook his head and said, “No, we’ve too many people, I stand a better chance by myself, plus with Annalyse at my side nothing will stop us, you all know what a fighter she is!”

There was some chuckling and cheering, though muted to avoid alerting any passing Aradmathians. The would-be slaves were broken up into small groups and plans were made. By the time the fifth and final toll came from the bell, the building was deserted save for the rats and the corpses.

* * * *

The rest of chapter 4 will be posted next weekend!

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

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