They had decided to let us get comfortable in our hanging cages before meeting with their leader, Jannaj. Before confining us, they had relieved each of us of our weapons, securing them in a locked chest which I made sure to keep track of, and then stuck us each in wood and iron cages hanging from the trees in their camp. It was quite uncomfortable but we were in the middle of all the cacophony of their quiet chatter and if we were lucky, we could get the information we sought.
De Koninck glared at me from across the way as she sat in a large hanging cage that looked too small due to her large stature. “We could’ve taken them!” She snapped at me in a harsh whisper. “Now look where we are!” She motioned around at the four of us, each stuck in a hanging cage fashioned from wood and iron. She squirmed, trying to find a comfortable position but failed. Grumbling, she thrust a foot at the reinforced wooden bars, causing it to rock to and fro which elicited a growl from her lips and a creaking from the cage. She had never been fond of tight spaces nor was she fond of the mode in which we arrived: hooded and bound in a roughly pulled cart. It was far from pleasant so I could not blame her.
In the distance, I could hear Michi and Molson growling and hissing from the pen the bandits had enclosed them in. It had taken about six bandits and many lengths of rope to subdue the beasts and secure them in their pens. De Koninck had verbally protested with great fervor while Quint had remained as reserved as he could but I saw how tightly he had clenched his jaw and hands while they locked Michi away. Now while we sat in our own cages, Quint shut his eyes tightly as the sounds of fervent scratching and thrashing began echoing throughout the camp. De Koninck sat uneasily in her cage and bit at her lower lip. A ranger’s pet became an extension of the ranger themselves. To witness their pet in agony could prove to be emotionally painful for the ranger and on rare occasion, physically painful, as if they were feeling their pet’s pain themselves. The closer the bond, the more intense the sensation could be.
I shot De Koninck a knowing smile while nonchalantly tugging on my ear and then flashed her a piece of shaped metal between my fingers: a little souvenir I took from the red-haired bandit who bound and bagged me. She nodded back at me, indicating she understood but I could see by the frown on her lips that she was not keen on the idea. I did the same to Seren so she would be included in our charade. The guardian narrowed her eyes at me and silently nodded. I did not expect her to be thrilled with our temporary predicament either. Quickly, I hid it back in my leg wrappings. I returned to watching the bandits as some huddled around their evening campfires and others walked the perimeter.
I leaned my head back against the bars and sighed. Of this whole ordeal, it was the waiting I feared most. Time alone with my head without distractions almost always lead to painful memories. Despite my want to only look forward, my mind always wanted to look back and before I knew it, their faces began flooding my mind again. I shut my eyes tightly, trying to make them go away but they refused to disappear. I wrapped my arms around myself and wondered if I had chosen differently the day I found the book, would the dead be alive? Would I be smiling and looking at the stars with Torran instead of sitting in this cage? Would Rhys be living his comfortable life while Sir Fendall continued on his adventures without our burdens? There were so many questions of what could have been but I forced myself to focus on the present. I had to remind myself the past could not be changed but the future could yet still be written.
“How long are they going to make us wait?” Seren grumpily whispered. She purposely avoided my gaze while taking off her winged shoulder plates. With them on, she could barely move her arms without banging into the metal bars of her cage. Quint and De Koninck looked to me for the answer and I was about to open my mouth to answer but was cut off.
“Which one of you leads this little group, eh?” A man of medium stature and broad build strolled confidently up to our group of cages with two other raggedly dressed bandits in tow. His mop of tousled dark hair hung down near his dark, piercing eyes and I could see strands of silver near his temples. He looked directly down his pointed nose at each of us as he approached.
With a guttural growl on her lips, De Koninck stuck out a straight finger, pointing my way. It was obvious she was quite angry at me for preventing a perfectly winnable fight. I had a feeling I would be hearing about it for days.
“I am,” I replied assertively from where I sat in my cage. “Jannaj, I assume?”
“The one and only,” he replied with a wicked smile. He straightened his worn coat. The threads from the embroidered trim had unraveled over time and now hung freely.
“What do you intend to do with us,” I asked, playing along.
He stepped closer and pulled at a section of my dark fir lined skirt that hung over the edge of the cage. He traced the woven cream-colored lines along the edge with his thumb until I jerked my leg back, pulling the material from his grasp. “I can imagine there’s someone missing you all very much. Someone willing to pay, that is.”
I watched Jannaj intently as he moved around our cages, inspecting us all. De Koninck flashed him a disgusted look and kicked her cage when he neared. This only resulted in a pleased chuckle from the bandit leader.
“We have a fighter here,” Jannaj remarked. The two other bandits following him laughed. I recognized the red haired stocky one on Jannaj’s left. He had been the one to bind and bag me and he had been far from gentle. I shot him a piercing glare.
Jannaj rounded De Koninck’s cage and made his way on to Quint’s. The bandit leader’s expression turned hard as he looked him up and down. He pushed Quint’s cage, making it rock gently. “What’s a gent like you doing out on the road with three lovely ladies, eh?” He asked, his tone probing.
I watched from the confines of my cage, expecting Quint to offer a terse or witty reply but the adviser merely remained silent while looking Jannaj up and down with cold, steel-colored eyes.
“That’s a nice coat,” Jannaj remarked. “Mine’s seen better days. Think I’ll keep yours for myself after we sell you off.”
Again, Quint remained silent while he tilted his head slightly to one side. I could see, even from a distance, that our Adviser was sizing Jannaj up. The wheels behind the eyes were turning but he made no move to reveal his hand. Quint was pushing Jannaj’s buttons, seeing what would make him react and so far, it seemed that a lack of reaction was what did it.
Unsatisfied with Quint’s lack of reply, Jannaj shot him a glare, pushed at his cage and made his way over to Seren.
“What do we have here?” Jannaj said, peering into Seren’s cage. “Such a young sweet thing my men managed to find.”
“Don’t touch me,” Seren warned as she pulled her legs in closer to her chest and away from the bars.
Jannaj let out an amused chuckle and took a hold of the bars on Seren’s cage. “And a little feisty too. I like that.”
“How long do you plan on keeping us in here?” I asked forcefully, trying to draw Jannaj’s attention away from Seren who now sat cringing in her cage.
“Oh, as long as we like,” he replied. “Or as long as we get a ransom. Not many come through here much lately though. Too bad that group already passed. Bet they could have paid a pretty gold for most of you.” He eyed Seren again with a greedy gaze. “Though, I might have just kept this one all to myself.”
Seren grew increasingly uncomfortable and understandably so, but his note of a passing group caught my attention. I flashed a knowing look to each of my traveling mates.
“And you just let them by?” I inquired, raising an eyebrow.
“They were quite convincing,” Jannaj replied, tugging at a full purse of coins hanging off of his belt. “Especially that man in the fancy coat. Stuck out like a sore thumb, that one.”
De Koninck scoffed as she rolled her eyes. “Bandits and their gold,” she mumbled under her breath.
I narrowed my eyes while I thought. A group with a well dressed man. Maybe he led them but exactly how many, we still did not know.
“Would they even have use for all of us?” I mused, playing into the conversation. “She alone is worth two,” I pointed to De Koninck.
“That lot, I’m sure they could have found uses for all of you,” Jannaj grinned. “Those little Asura could have used you in their experiments I’m sure.” His grin fell. “Those little rat-eared creatures give me the creeps,” he uttered under his breath. “But they do pay well. Oh well, there’s always the centaurs. They’ll pay less but money is money.” A wicked grin tugged at the corner of his lips.
I could see my travel mates grimace at the mention of the centaurs and I myself felt a slight roll in my gut. The four-legged half equine, half human creatures did not take kindly to the humans of Kryta for taking their land when Kryta was settled. If Jannaj decided to sell us off to the centaurs, the rest of our lives would be lived out in pain and suffering. Still, Jannaj had mentioned the Asura so my assumptions about the Inquest’s involvement after finding the device seemed to be correct. If these Inquest members knew about our secret, I would not be surprised at their want to be involved. They may see it as an opportunity to better understand the Eternal Alchemy they held so dear.
A commotion rose from the fringes of the camp as someone approached. By the jovial way the bandits had reacted, I guessed it was someone they knew. I leaned back and peered through the metal bars to see who was arriving. I could see flashes of drab orange and red in the small spaces between the surrounding bandits but as they stepped back, I caught a glimpse of the approaching man.
“By the six,” I muttered under my breath. I turned to my fellow traveling mates and motioned towards the arriving person. As each of them caught a glimpse of the man, their eyes widened with surprise, matching my own expression of incredulousness.
A man of medium height and sturdy build, dressed in autumn colors of reds and oranges, strolled leisurely through the small group of greeting bandits with a large warthog in tow. He pulled down his leather face mask and let it hang around his neck. The man’s arrival eventually caught Jannaj’s attention and he turned from us to greet the man.
“Artis!” Jannaj greeted him, happily. “Did you find it?”
“Always straight to the point with you, isn’t it,” Artis remarked, his voice rough and tired. He reached into his pack, drew out a small leather covered cylinder, and placed it firmly in Jannaj’s hands. “It wasn’t easy to get. Had to go through a large group of Ettins to get to it. The smell alone was enough to make a man keel over.”
Jannaj chuckled as he opened the top of the cylinder. “Those dumb beasts are good for nothing except their strength. Makes them excellent for guarding things though,” he mused. Reaching into the cylinder, Jannaj pulled out a handful of gems.
“So that’s it, right?” Artis asked. “The debt’s paid off.”
Jannaj looked up from his new prize. “Not quite,” he replied coldly.
Artis was taken back. “What? You said if I got you these gems, the debt would be paid.”
“I did,” Jannaj replied, pouring the gems from his hand, back into the cylinder. “There’s less here than I had anticipated so no, your debt isn’t paid.”
“How can you–,” Artis took a step forward but was met by blades drawn by Jannaj’s two accompanying bandits. Reluctantly, Artis threw up his hands, showing he meant no harm and the two bandits lowered their blades. “Fine,” Artis spat.
Securing the top of the cylinder shut, Jannaj grinned wickedly. “Now that’s settled, I’m sure I can find you another job or two to help pay off your debt. In the mean time, rest yourself by the fire and have some food and drink. I may need your help later with a few recent acquires.”
Artis followed Jannaj towards the center of the camp, with his warthog in tow, to where we hung from our cages. His eyes widened upon seeing us and he started to open his mouth to say something. My heart leapt up into my throat. If he were to acknowledge his involvement with us, who knows what that would mean for any of us. Artis could find himself in a cage with us and our plans of gleaming information from the bandits could end up more violent than desired. Luckily, Artis never uttered a word and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Jannaj began, shaking his new parcel gently. “I need to take care of these.”
I watched Jannaj whisper something to the two bandits who had never left his side and then he left, leaving Artis standing in front of our cages. He turned, watching Jannaj’s two bodyguards settle themselves down by a nearby campfire before turning to me.
“Don’t worry Red,” He whispered hurriedly to me in a low voice. “I’ll get you guys out.” He turned to check to see if any of the Bandits were watching the exchange of words. “Later, after the fires burn down low.” With that, he stepped away to find a place at one of the nearby campfires and joined in with their conversations.
A couple hours later, the campfires began to burn low. Most of the bandits had now had their fill of drink and began to nod off. My stomach growled, reminding me how long it had been since I had fed it. I sighed and tried to focus on the present task at hand. I looked over at De Konink to find she had begun to nod off. Seren sat quietly, leaning against the metal bars, looking off into the distance. She hugged her arms close to herself and had brought her knees up to her chest. A deep frown had taken up residency on her lips and that guilt grew inside me again to the point where I had to look away. I hoped one day I could set it right. I hoped one day I could set the whole thing right.
A rustling sound caught my attention and I turned to find Artis approaching with his warthog in tow. “Yunkle,” he called to the beast in a harsh whisper. “Guard.” The stout animal remained behind, walking the perimeter as Artis approached our cages.
“I couldn’t get the keys,” Artis began, checking the area around us to make sure the bandits were still asleep. “Jannaj’s lets Vick keep them and I can’t get near that red haired bastard without wakin’ him.”
I let out an annoyed sigh, reached into my leg wraps and then over the side of my cage. Yunkle let out a gruff snort and Artis looked behind him for signs of anyone approaching. “We might be able to pick the lock,” he began again as he dug into his coat pocket.
He turned back around to find me standing before him, free of my cage, with the key held up tightly between two of my fingers. His eyes went wide. “How–.”
“After we are free of this place, we are going to have a very serious discussion about your membership with this guild,” I scolded.