Previously: “We’re looking for the prisoners you took from the town of Greenest,” Cyd says. “Where are you keeping them?”
The man growls. “If you think I’ll talk, you’re—”
“…A wooden bunk house, right up against the cliff,” Nubbins murmurs. “There are big tents around it.”
Cyd grins. “Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.” [Chapter 29: The Dig Site]
Cyanwrath, the leader of the raiders, wipes his sword clean. “It seems I was misled about the strength of my opponent. How disappointing,” he sighs. “Well, a deal is a deal.” He raises a hand, and the kobolds behind him release their hold on the three prisoners. Then he strides away. [Chapter 20: The Champion of Greenest]
When Cuthbert set out from home to seek his fortune, he never imagined that this was what he’d find. He shifts his position on the hard, wooden floor of the prison bunkhouse, shackles biting into his ankles and neck. He’d been on his way to Greenest when he had been captured, lured to the area by reports of dragon cultists, and coin for any adventurers bold enough to stand up to them.
Well, the raiders had found him before he’d found them. And when three hundred crazed cultists surround your one-man campsite, armed to the teeth, and inform you that you’re coming with them, you don’t refuse.
He has been a prisoner for five days, now, force-marched right into the heart of the bandit encampment he had half expected to be routing before the month was up. Turning his head under the pretence of stretching out his sore muscles, Cuthbert surveys his fellow inmates. There are twenty in all, a ragged group of men and women of all ages, with unkempt hair and tired eyes. Most seem to be from Greenest and the surrounding villages. From snatches the conversations he has overheard between the guards and the muttered warnings of the prisoners, Cuthbert deduces that there were more of them to begin with. He’s not intending on sticking around long enough to find out what happened to the others.
Cuthbert hasn’t spoken much to the survivors, but he can see that none of them are up to much. There’s a farrier and an armourer among them, but no one who looks like they’ve ever handled a sword or cast a spell. Not that the prisoners’ skills make much difference to their captors, who assign all of them the same drudge work regardless of age and ability. Cuthbert spent most of today working in a chain gang with a pick in his hand, expanding the cave complex at the back of the cultists’ camp. The gruelling manual labour saps his energy, and the meagre rations the prisoners are given at day’s end do little to restore it. What with that, and the poor condition of the other captives, his chances of a successful escape look slim.
He does have one ace up his sleeve, though. The guards seem to have mistaken him for just another villager. Huge mistake. Cuthbert grins to himself; moving slowly so as not to rattle his chains, he slips two fingers into the pouch on his belt and withdraws a wisp of wool. He hasn’t spent these past five days idly bemoaning his fate, oh no: he’s been listening and thinking. Plotting. There are two guards on duty inside the bunkhouse tonight, a burly woman and a man with a nervous expression. Cuthbert clenches the wool in his fist and mouths a few words.
“Luanda! You’re needed in the leaders’ tent. Cyanwrath wants to talk to you.”
The voice sounds distant, and annoyed. The woman jumps at the sound, then straightens her robes and walks quickly outside. As soon as she has left, Cuthbert lets out a groan of agony.
The nervous guard frowns. “Be quiet, prisoner.”
“It hurts so much,” Cuthbert moans, raising both his hands to the man in a pleading gesture. “Please, give me some water. Just a little water!”
Cursing under his breath, the guard crosses to Cuthbert’s side. As he bends down, Cuthbert seizes him by the arm and utters a word in a sharp, crackling voice that leaves a taste of ozone in his mouth. Blue light springs from his fingertips to the skin of the guard’s arm. The man spasms, his face contorting in pain. Then he drops to the floor.
“Huh. That was even easier than I expected,” Cuthbert says. He flicks his fingers; the ring of keys hanging from the guard’s belt unclips itself and drifts through the air into his hand. With a flourish, the sorcerer releases himself from his shackles. But as he straightens to his full height, revelling in the sensation, and turns towards the door, he stops. The rest of the prisoners are all awake, and staring at him with hopeful expressions. He hesitates, caught mid-stride. Then he groans.
“Alright, fine,” he says, though none of them have spoken. “But you’d better not slow me down.”
He moves quickly from captive to captive, unlocking their shackles and catching the chains before they can clash to the floor. The prisoners help one another to stand; many are limping, and a few sport visible wounds and bruises. Once the last man has risen, haltingly, to his feet, Cuthbert strides to the door and risks a quick glance outside.
“Coast is clear,” he whispers. “Follow me. Keep low. We’ll hide in those bushes to the left and… figure something out from there.”
In truth, he has no idea how he’ll be able to get this many people safely out of the camp. From what he remembers, the only point of egress is a choke point at the opposite end of the valley, watched over by a guard tower. Cuthbert is busy trying to think his way out of this bind when he smacks into something with such force that he is almost knocked over. He rubs his head and glances around. He can’t see anything; it’s like he has just walked into an invisible wall.
“Hey, aren’t these the prisoners Nighthill was telling us about?” a voice says. “They look like they’re doing fine on their own.”
“Quiet,” another voice hisses, “We’re supposed to be keeping a low—”
“We are doing fine on our own, thanks,” Cuthbert says coolly. “But help never goes amiss. Now…” He squints into the bushes. Three pairs of eyes glint back at him. “Who are you?”
It turns out, after much confusion, that they are the cavalry, sent from Greenest to free the prisoners and gather information about the camp. The four mercenaries—Cuthbert assumes they must be mercenaries, since he can’t see why else they’d be here—are an unlikely bunch. The three that he can see seem to be human, at least at first glance, but before long the sorcerer realises that the man on the left looks far taller than he really is. He’s using magic to alter his appearance: Cuthbert can tell because the man occasionally plunges his hands into his own head to adjust the hat that he must be wearing beneath the illusion. Every time he does this, the woman standing beside him rolls her eyes and digs him in the ribs, her elbow passing straight through his robes and compounding the effect. There’s also a bald, stocky man with a pink face who introduces himself as Gerard, and Mr. Invisible, who could be an ogre for all Cuthbert knows.
He has to admit that he’s impressed by their disguises, which look identical to the robes worn by the cultists themselves.
“We took them from the raiders that attacked Greenest,” Gerard explains. “I have some more in my pack that might help to disguise some of you.” He draws them out and begins handing them around to Cuthbert and the other prisoners.
“So,” the woman says, pursing her lips in thought. “Ger, if you help Bert here—”
“That’s what I said. If you help Bert get out of the camp with the rest of the prisoners then Nubs, Alf and I can go and rescue Leosin. We’ll meet you back at the dig site.”
Gerard nods. Cuthbert, who’s sure he’s missing pertinent details about this plan, nods also. He and his new ally set off, the erstwhile captives falling into line behind them.
As they hurry across the camp, Gerard forms the townsfolk into a tight-knit cluster. He only had enough robes for five of them: these he positions on the outside of the group so that they are flanking the other prisoners at the front, back and sides. He shows them the sign of Tiamat, three fingers curled into a claw shape. “If anyone questions you directly, show them this,” he instructs them, “and tell them that you’re acting on Cyanwrath’s orders.”
“Who’s Leosin?” Cuthbert asks, as Gerard rejoins him at the front of the convoy.
“Another prisoner,” Gerard replies. “He’s being held further in, though: when we were scouting out the camp, we saw him tied to a scaffold near the leaders’ tent. I’m glad you were here, by the way,” he adds, shooting Cuthbert a grateful glance. “We were a man down when we infiltrated the camp.” He colours as he realises what he has just said. “Not that I am saying I’m happy you got captured. Only—”
“You’re welcome,” Cuthbert says dismissively. “How did you get in, anyway?”
“Well, as a human monk, I blend in fairly easily already,” Gerard answers. “Nubbins and Cydonie are both experts in disguise. We had to turn Aleph invisible, though. He would never have passed unnoticed. He’s a Warforged,” he adds, for Cuthbert’s benefit.
Cuthbert nods. He’s heard of Warforged before: metal constructs with eyes of flame. That explains the concussion he got from running into him.
“The really tricky question,” Gerard continues, “is how we are going to get out.” He surveys the townsfolk doubtfully.
“We could pretend we’re moving the prisoners at Cyanwrath’s request,” Cuthbert suggests.
“Do you think they would believe us?” Gerard tugs at the sleeves of his robes. “Why would Cyanwrath have ordered us to move the prisoners outside of the cultists’ stronghold?”
Just then there’s a shout behind them. Cuthbert turns hastily, but none of the cultists are looking their way. In fact, several of them are pointing at something behind the escapees, in the direction of the cave at the back of the camp. As the sorcerer watches, raiders begin moving towards the source of the disturbance, swords drawn. There’s a wisp of smoke rising from over there, and a growing tumult of voices.
“I might be able to think of a reason,” Cuthbert murmurs.
“Oh dear.” Gerard follows his gaze. “I do hope the others are keeping a low profile.”
By the time they reach the guard tower that flanks the entrance to the camp, kobolds and cultists are sprinting past them in the opposite direction and the whole place is alive with shouting. There are only a handful of guards left manning the checkpoint, and they look twitchy. Now’s the time to make a move, Cuthbert thinks: when no one has any idea what’s going on. He marches straight up to the nearest guard and makes the cult sign that Gerard taught him.
“Cyanwrath has asked us to take these prisoners to a secure location outside of the camp,” he barks.
The guard starts. “Wh—what? I was told that—”
“Are you questioning Cyanwrath’s orders?” Cuthbert interrupts. Better not to give the man time to think.
“N—no—I was only wondering—”
“Well don’t. It’s chaos back there.” Cuthbert jerks a thumb towards the havoc at his back. “If we don’t get these captives out of here right now, the invaders will get them. Is that what you want?”
“Invaders?” The guard’s face is pale, but he hasn’t moved. Time to change tack.
Cuthbert makes a show of sighing. “Right. You”—he jabs the guard in the chest—“come with me. Once we’ve got the prisoners safely out of here, you can guard them while I report back to Cyanwrath. OK?”
Weakly, the man nods. Cuthbert darts a sidelong glance at Gerard, who inclines his head fractionally, gripping his staff in both hands. As they set off, Cuthbert leading with an air of confident authority, Gerard drifts further back, positioning himself immediately behind their new companion.
They wait until they’ve put several twists and turns of the steep valley walls between them and the cultist encampment before Gerard hits the guard in the back of the head. The man sways for a moment, then folds slowly to the ground.
“Simple enough,” Cuthbert says, prodding the body with the toe of his boot. “Now we just have to wait for the others.”
“Oh, yes,” says Gerard, who is staring back at the camp with anxious eyes.
We’re back, everyone! After a couple of weeks of continuing health problems and a family tragedy, we’re both finally back on our feet and ready for a new chapter!
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