In the Lair of the Bloody Handed
Part Seven – Slaves of the Mind
When they had finished their lunch, after the snake had departed, and after the day had cooled down marginally, they set off again, along the route that Brelor led them. The journey that they had set out upon was not a short one and that night they camped out in the forest, before continuing on the following day.
Towards the middle of the morning they came upon another village. This one had been abandoned and burnt out, leaving behind the shells of buildings and the blackened stumps of the walls. A flock of birds erupted as they neared, disappearing into the forest.
“They were good people who lived here,” Brelor noted sadly. “I had not heard that they had fallen to Keturhi.”
“It happened recently too,” Abasan said. “The ashes of the fires are still fresh.”
“No bodies,” Nhaqosa pointed out,
“There wouldn’t be,” Brelor replied. “Any left alive would have been taken off into captivity and the scavengers of the forests would have made quick work of any dead.” He shook his head. “In a few years you won’t even know that there had been a village here at all.”
As the second day began to draw towards its close and the evening shadows began to lengthen, they spotted ahead of them, down a river they were following, a hill jutting up out of the forest. Its sides were craggy and steep and festooned with wild growth.
To Nhaqosa’s eye, growing up as he had training in the working of stone and building with it, the spot seemed ideal for constructing an easily defensible fortification, with a great view of the surrounds and easy access to water. None had been built there though, and the village, according to Brelor, had been built at the base of the hill.
“The last that we heard, Keturhi was here, another recent conquest,” Brelor told them.
Nhaqosa nodded as he studied the hill. “Thank you for your help, Brelor. It would be best, I think, if you were to remain behind, to report to Tolvir should anything go wrong.”
“What are you planning?” the young man asked.
Nhaqosa smiled. “Something different. It will work best without you with us.”
Brelor nodded, though he seemed uncertain still. Even so he faded off into the forest with nary a sound, leaving Nhaqosa and his band behind.
“What do you have in mind exactly, Kwaza?” Abasan asked after the young man had gone.
“Tolvir though that we were these People of Iron as he called them, didn’t he? Even me. This Keturhi will do the same, I do not doubt, and we can use that to our advantage?”
“We offer ourselves as mercenaries then?”
Nhaqosa nodded. “It is so.”
“There is a lot that can go wrong with that, Kwaza,” Abasan pointed out. “She may not believe us, and even if she does, what then?”
“Life is fraught with danger, my friend, and we have seen more than most. Sometimes we need to take that risk though. In this instance I can not sit idly by and watch a people destroyed or enslaved. Ours was a slavery of chains and yet our minds remained free. Theirs is something much worse, and more sinister, a slavery of the mind and the will. They are denied the right to think for themselves, to choose and express themselves. You saw what it did to those unfortunates that were forced to fight us.” Nhaqosa’s tail slashed the air behind him as he spoke. “I will not allow it to continue.”
Abasan nodded as he listened. The sentiment was Nhaqosa to the core. Only one who had been denied freedom could appreciate its true worth, and he would take any risk, even to not returning to the home he longed for, even to his own death, to ensure the freedom of others.
They continued along the river and before long the encampment they sought appeared before them. Numerous warriors, both human and of the kind Tolvir had called Painted Ones could be seen in it. The village, itself not much different than Tolvir’s, sat at the foot of the hill, beside the river, while around it had been made crude lean-to shelters of wood and branches, to house the many warriors who could not fit inside the village.
“I make it a couple of hundred at least, boss,” Lakach noted, tugging at the corner of his moustache. “If this goes bad we could be in for a rough time.”
Nhaqosa laughed, a deep rumbling sound, as he emerged out of the forest and into the cleared land around the forest. Barely had he done so, the others following close being, than a small swarm of the foe left the encampment and headed towards them. They spread out to cover them with stone tipped spears and with arrows nocked to their bows.
“Make no sudden moves,” Nhaqosa warned his band quietly. He stopped as the enemy closed in, waiting for their arrival. As they did so he set his maul down and held out his hands to show that he wielded no weapons and posed no obvious threat.
One of those approaching, standing taller than the rest, and with a jagged scar running down the right side of his face that twisted up the corner of his mouth, addressed them when the group arrived.
“You do not come from the tribes and nor are you of the Loyal. Who are you and what is your purpose here? Speak quickly!”
“We have come to offer our services to your leader,” Nhaqosa replied, speaking calmly.
The man’s eyes narrowed in some thought as he contemplated the answer. He glanced aside to his companions, then back to Nhaqosa, casting a look over the band. Finally he gave a shrug. “I do not think that you will get the response that you wish for, but I will take you to the Eldest and let her decide your fate.”
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