The Merchant’s Legacy
Part Five – The Bandit’s Lair
For the rest of the day they pressed on beneath the welcoming shade of the trees that provided some relief from the heat that broiled the air. The whole time the tireless Nhaqosa carried the weakened Katako in his arms, without complaint or pause in his step. Even though their long association with Nhaqosa had accustomed the former gladiators and slaves to the sheer strength of the giant minotaur, the display they beheld left even them in awe of his efforts.
By the time that evening came down around them though, even he showed some strain from the burden he had carried and gratefully set Katako down when they had made a halt for the day. The man had drifted in and out of consciousness during the journey, his body struggling as it combated the poisons that had seeped into his system.
“How is he doing?” Abasan asked as Katako sunk down onto the ground in a drowsing sleep, muttering something unintelligible.
“I think he will recover,” Nhaqosa replied, more in hope than belief, for even he had a touch of uncertainty. “But he will be unwell for some time to come when that eventuates.”
“Niati went off ahead with Lakach,” Abasan told him. “They report that the bandit’s lair is close to hand.”
“Good. Let us see to them and then we can get Katako properly settled down and give him time to recover.”
Lakach was a small, wiry man with a drooping red moustache of which he was immensely and eccentrically proud. What he had been before Nhaqosa had freed him from the fighting pits had never come to light. He had claimed to be a simple poacher, a crime not unknown for being sentenced to a life as a gladiator, though Nhaqosa had some doubts about that, and some suspicions as to what he had truly been. Whatever it had been, he had proven adept at scouting, being able to move stealthily ahead, unseen and unheard, to locate trouble, or to end it with crossbow or knife.
“They have a camp up ahead, boss,” he reported, in his typical laid-back drawling manner. “Built it around a cave entrance.” Drawing his knife, he began to scratch out a rough map in the dirt. “Got a dozen or so roughly built wooden huts here in a clearing around the cave entrance, which is over here.” He drove his knife into the ground on part of the map. “At a guess I’d say they could house a half dozen each. Wasn’t able to get a close view of the cave, not without giving my presence away, so I couldn’t be certain as to what exactly the purpose it fulfils is.”
“How many guards?”
Lakach frowned, tugging at the corner of his moustache. “Only saw a couple, sitting out before the cave entrance around a fire. The place seemed unnaturally quiet for a band the size we are after, if you ask me.”
Nhaqosa responded with a low grunt. “Best if I take a look at the place. Abasan, stay here with the rest. I’m going ahead with Niati and Lakach.”
The trio made their way forward amongst the trees, Lakach and Niati flowing like ghosts and even Nhaqosa, despite his bulk and size, moving with remarkable silence. Lakach led them to a spot on the edge of the clearing in which the bandit lair had been set up, from where, shrouded by brush and scrubs and the growing gloom of the late day, they could observe all that went on unseen.
It was much as Lakach had described it, a collection of a dozen poorly built log huts spread around a cave entrance that led into the side of a cliff face. The cliff face rose up and disappeared into choking growth above, a thick wall of vines and scrub. A fire burned brightly, illuminating the entrance to the cave. Around it sprawled three men, passing a stoneware jug between each other. They were a coarse looking group, unshaven and wearing hides and leathers, their weapons lying alongside them, seemingly apathetic to any danger.
Nhaqosa took his time to study the details of the lair carefully before nodding to himself, satisfied with what he had seen. He gestured to the other two and they slipped away, unnoticed, heading back to rejoin the others of the band.
“There do not appear to be many of them there,” he reported once they had gathered together to plan their actions. “My guess is that most may be away for the moment, with only a few remaining behind to tend the camp. I may be wrong, and the others are in the cave somewhere, so we go in quick and fast. Lakach, you take the bowmen and move your way around to the right flank, to the slight rise to the south of the cave. I want you to take down the guards at the fire, then support us from there if required.”
Lakach nodded, grinned, and patted the crossbow he carried. “Not a sound, boss, don’t you worry.”
“Once they are dealt with, we will have one person check out each of the huts for any that may be in them. You all know what to do in the eventuality there are,” he added ominously. “Those remaining will be with me, near the cave. If any problems appear we will deal with them. I need someone to stay behind with Katako. We’ll send for you when it is done. Oliat? Good.” He looked around at the small group, fixing his gaze on each, one by one. “We all know what needs doing here, so let us be safe about it. No larking about, no taking risks.”
Murmurs of assent greeted his words. They checked over weapons and armour before starting towards the lair, leaving Oliat behind with Katako in the temporary camp.
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