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Lowborn Ch. 03

Assassins in the night.
The firelight from the encampment finally provided enough illumination for Mindblind to figure out what he was doing as he followed Raven, miming her movements.

His knees ached from inching along in a crouch below the top of the waist-high grasses, and his hair was full of cockleburs. The animal trail that Raven followed helped to obscure their movements through the grass, and the wind provided the final cover.

He had no worries about any sound that they made alerting the slavers. The voices of at least five prostitutes crying out in mock passion would drown out anything less than a war cry. A combination of laughter and catcalls hinted that the men probably weren’t paying much attention to anything else, anyway.

Raven stopped and settled to her knees behind a bush. A larger, irregular circle of broken grass spread out from the shrub – likely a spot where several animals had bedded down. Mindblind gratefully joined her on his knees, and found that he could see the encampment through the bush.

Three wagons and two large tents surrounded the fire in the center of the camp. A few lanterns shed fitful light as they struggled to burn in the wind. The group obviously had no fear of discovery, as all eyes were trained upon the show around the fire.

Mindblind could see two women on their hands and knees, men with dropped trousers kneeling behind them and furiously pounding away. Another woman stood, bent at the waist, one man behind her and another feeding her his cock in the front. Other couplings were just hints of body parts peeking through the fire.

Raven’s whisper in his ear caused him to start. “Using what they have to try to get loose, or at least treated better. The one getting poked from both ends is my sister.” He could almost hear her eyes rolling in her tone.

A few seconds later, the man in front of Raven’s sister jerked his cock free of her mouth and tilted her head up by using her hair as a handle. Gales of laughter erupted when he apparently sprayed cum all over her face.

Raven sat down, seemingly confident that they had nothing to fear at the moment. Her brow furrowed as her eyes roamed over her surroundings. Once again, Mindblind followed her lead and sat down, having much the same opinion about the chance of discovery.

She leaned in close and whispered, “Something’s not right. It’s bad business to let them sport with any woman they grab – even a whore. Makes it tempting to ignore orders not to poke the virgins batting their eyelashes on the next grab.”

“Maybe whoever’s runnin’ the bunch ain’t around, and they figure they can get away with it.”

“Not unless they’re greener than pond scum. You see anybody with a weapon?”

He couldn’t recall any obvious swords or bows. Some might be carrying daggers or other small weapons, but nothing that would do much good if anyone came after them. “Nope. Only a couple of them had anything back at the Cat.”

“I’d bet my left tit that those were the only real slavers. They just rounded this bunch up somewhere. It stinks worse than a fishmonger’s ass.”

“Good for us.”

“Maybe. We’ll have to wait until most of them get done with their ride and fall asleep. Twenty to two isn’t good odds, even if all they have to fight with is their fists and their stink.”

Raven leaned forward and draped her arms over her bent knees, her ears perking and eyes snapping toward any hint of sound or movement.

The wait was a long one. As near as Mindblind could tell, every man in the camp had a turn, and then some. Eventually, men vanished into the tents, one-by-one. When the number dropped low enough, one of a pair of half-attentive guards would return any unused woman to a wagon, until only one couple on the other side of the fire remained.

Raven had drawn a long-bladed dagger as the next-to-the-last woman was returned to her rolling prison. Mindblind slipped his arm back into his shield, also sensing that the time to act was close.

He and Raven both tensed when two faint twangs accompanied the guards sprouting feathered shafts from their chests and falling silently to the ground. A third shot rang out just as a pair of men appeared on the other side of the camp. Both dropped bows and quivers to draw daggers in each hand. The other archer stepped into the light while the first two crept toward the tents.

Once all three were in place, they burst into the tents.

“Shit, I knew it,” Raven spit out, and she started to move forward.

Mindblind grabbed her shoulder and said, “There could be more of them with bows out there.”

She shook her head. “They have them dead. No need. Come on.”

Shouts of alarm and death screams erupted from both tents. Raven rushed into the camp, angling toward a wagon that would provide cover, despite her insistence that nobody else was watching. Cursing under his breath, Mindblind followed.

No arrows flew at them as the slaughter continued beyond the canvas walls. One of the tents collapsed as a body slammed against it, pulling out the stakes on the opposite side.

“You get the near one. Get them when they come out,” Raven directed, and then sprinted toward the collapsed tent, making sure to keep the fire between her and the canvas.

Mindblind charged toward the tent, doing his best to remain quiet, and likewise trying to avoid casting a shadow on the canvas wall. He either failed in his attempt at stealth, or the man simply had good intuition, because the murderer jumped from the tent in a fighting crouch, and immediately screamed something in his own language.

“Fuck,” Mindblind growled as the second man from the tent joined the first. All three stalked each other, preparing for an attack, and looking for an opening.

One of the murderers acted first, hurling a dagger. Mindblind barely managed to intercept the throw with his shield, and the weapon dropped to the earth nearby. The second man charged even as the spinning blade left his partner’s hand. Mindblind brought his sword into a defensive position, forcing the man to stop, to stay outside the longer weapon’s reach.

The dagger-thrower filled his free hand with a sword so that he might stand on a more even footing. As he drew closer, the second man backed up and turned. Mindblind could just barely see Raven approaching in his peripheral vision.

“Not so tough when you aren’t knifing people in their sleep – huh?” Raven taunted. “What’s a matter, big man? You afraid of a girl?”

“Leave now, if you wish to live,” the man facing Mindblind barked in a thick accent, staying on the defensive just out of range.

“Tell that to your buddy drowning in his own blood over there,” Raven retorted.

Though he heard the clang of knives engaging, Mindblind had no opportunity to glance Raven’s way. The man in front of him charged, sword and dagger both working in a display meant to distract.

A short, angled push of Mindblind’s shield deflected a slash of the sword, but it was merely a feint for the real attack. Equal measures of luck and quick reaction allowed him to twist enough that the bloody dagger only scraped against his leather armor before snapping back.

The murderer pressed his attack with an overhand swing of the sword, but Mindblind’s weapon rose to meet it with a ring of steel on steel. His opponent’s dagger found only the leather and wood of Mindblind’s shield as well, and he disengaged.

A high-pitched cry that trailed off into a wheeze caused Mindblind’s heart to skip a beat, but he knew better than to take his eyes off of his dangerous opponent. The murderer – either more confident or less disciplined – let his eyes flicker toward the other battle for a fraction of a second.

Mindblind’s muscles coiled in preparation to attack, and his opponent’s eyes went wide. The murderer ducked down just as a spinning dagger sailed through the air at the same height as where his throat would have been. His journey to the ground continued when the bottom edge of Mindblind’s shield caught him in the temple.

With his opponent down and unmoving, Mindblind snapped his gaze toward Raven. She smiled at him, and bent down to wipe the blood off her dagger on the clothing of the dead man at her feet.

A groan from behind him caused Mindblind to spin toward the fire and bring his weapon to bear. A grunt followed, and he relaxed when he saw a woman struggling to push the dead body atop her to the side.

“Ray, if you’re quite done playing, would you please get this smelly oaf off of me?”

“I told you to stop calling me that, Yani,” Raven snarled as she walked toward her sister.

“Please. I’m not going to call you Raven, or whatever silly thing you’re going by now.”

Mindblind shook his head as he approached as well. The woman’s nonchalant, mocking tone of voice seemed utterly out of place. She’d been kidnapped, let her body be used for hours, listened to men dying all around her, and she was lying beneath a dead man with an arrow sticking out of his back, but she didn’t seem to care – or even notice.

“You’re welcome,” Raven responded, and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Got ‘em,” Mindblind said to her, having reached Yani first. He transferred his sword to his shield hand temporarily, and rolled the body off the woman.

Yani made a disgusted sound and sat up. Her ample chest was covered in blood that had poured from the dead man’s mouth. The rest of her was covered in cum, from streaks in the dark curls atop her head to dribbles on her feet where it had ran down her thighs.

Her eyebrows shot up and she remarked, “Delly’s favorite playmate? Riding to her rescue, are we?”

Raven turned back toward the tents, where a few groans revealed that the murderers hadn’t quite finished the job. “Delly’s dead, Yani.”

“Oh – revenge, then,” Yani said as she stood up. Semen dripped from between her legs to spatter on the ground as she walked toward one of the wagons.

Mindblind shook his head again, the woman’s behavior beyond comprehension to him.

Raven tapped him on the arm. “Forget about it. We’d better take care of the one you bashed, and any of them that are still alive in there. I’ll cut some rope off one of the tents.”

When he turned toward her with a silent question in his eyes, she explained, “Like I said, this whole thing stinks. I want to know where the shithouse is.”

“Shouldn’t we get out of here?”

“They weren’t expecting trouble. We’ve got a bit – trust me.”

Though he still wasn’t sure, Mindblind nodded his agreement. He glanced over at Yani to see her dipping a cloth into a water barrel and washing away the mess covering her.

She was whistling the whole while.

****

Only four men in the tents were still alive, and two of those died from their wounds within a few minutes. The man that Raven had stabbed when he emerged from the tent had obviously died slowly. His body was contorted, and his face a horrible mask of terror.

The two betrayed slavers sat trembling in their bonds next to one of the men who had tried to murder them. He hadn’t yet awakened from the blow to the head from Mindblind’s shield. All were nude, as Raven had insisted upon stripping them as another deterrent against escape.

The two guards that had died in the initial arrow attack had keys for the wagons. Mindblind took one, and tossed Raven the other as soon as he fished it out of the man’s pocket.

As he stood, Yani walked over and bent down in his place.

“What are you doing?” Raven asked her.

“Well, I assume that we’ll be leaving at some point. I’m not walking through the brush and brambles, naked and barefoot.”

Raven shrugged. “Make yourself useful and find anything that isn’t completely blood-soaked for the others while we let them out, then.”

“I’ll do my best, but it’s hardly going to be an attractive little traveling troupe.”

Raven turned away and Mindblind followed. “Guess not getting along doesn’t really describe it, huh?”

“It’s not that simple,” she replied, her voice a little distant. She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture a moment later and said, “Later. Let’s get everyone out, see what we can scrounge, and try to wring something out of that bunch we’ve got fettered.”

A scream sounded when Raven opened the door of the first wagon. Hardly surprising, since the occupants had surely heard the death cries from outside earlier. A similar scream greeted Mindblind when he opened the second. The air rushing out of the wagon stank of sweat, sex – and worse. One of the prostitutes recognized him almost before the first scream died away and calmed the rest before they could join in.

The women were all nude, of course, and those who had chosen to utilize their skills in hopes of slightly better treatment were cum-covered.

“There’s some water out here to clean up. We’ll try to find something for you to put on,” Mindblind told them, before heading for the final wagon.

Upon unlocking the door, Mindblind thought better of just throwing it open this time. “I’m not one of them, so don’t start screaming at me. I’m here to let you out.” After giving that a few seconds to sink in, he opened the door, and held his breath. Almost immediately, a man shoved his way out of the wagon.

“This is absolutely un...” The man began to rant, and then noticed the bodies. His throat closed, and the blood drained out of his face.

Mindblind chuckled, recognizing the man whom he’d seen on the street in town before going to the Cat. He pointedly ignored the pale man, helped the prostitutes down out of the wagon, and directed them to the barrel, where the women from the other wagons were washing.

“I demand to know what is going on here!”

Mindblind glanced over at the pretty-boy and said, “Shut up, or I’ll put you back in the wagon and leave you there.”

“You dare threaten me?”

Having already turned away to continue toward Raven, Mindblind once again ignored the shouting man. Raven had found some of the men’s spare clothing in the wagon, as well as a few rags, and informed the women when she sat down the bundle on the steps of the wagon.

“Ce... Cer...”

Upon hearing the familiar voice, Mindblind turned to see Kayleen stepping toward him. She was obviously struggling to remember his name.

“Delly... She’s...”

“I know. Just get cleaned up and find something to wear. You’re safe for now.”

Kayleen nodded and walked over to the pile of clothing, which grew when Yani returned from scrounging through the carnal house of the tents. If she felt anything about the murdered men, it didn’t show in her face. She now wore trousers, and a pair of shoes that were a little too big, though she was still bare-breasted.

“Ra... Sister, might I borrow one of your knives?”

Raven handed her a dagger without looking at her and said to Mindblind, “At least it looks like they’re all fit to travel.” She gestured to the wagon that she’d unlocked. “Half of that one was for storing their stuff. Plenty of food, but we won’t be able to carry most of it. We can’t risk taking the wagons.”

“Yeah, we need to be able to scramble, if whoever’s running this game finds us.”

“Good thing about them being mostly Draxnians – they all had canteens. We’ll be able to carry plenty of water, not that it’s hard to find out here. There’s a little coin, some rope, a few other basics. The tents are a complete loss.”

“How far away is that town you talked about?”

“Figure we could get there a bit before dawn, if we left now – alone. Few hours after, with the crowd, and wringing out the ones we’ve got hogtied.”

As soon as she finished speaking, Raven leaned a little to the side and stared curiously over Mindblind’s shoulder. He turned, and let out a groan.

The handsome man stomped toward them, and stopped with his hands on his hips. “Do you have any idea who I am? I...”

Much to Mindblind’s surprise, Kayleen suddenly stepped up next to the man, and jammed her finger directly into his chest. She’d found a shirt to wear, but her bare bottom still peeked out from below the cloth.

“I don’t care who you are!” Kayleen chided, her eyes afire. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we were all to be sold into slavery or killed. You’re no different than any of us right now – whores or no – and you owe them your life. If you wish to keep it, then I suggest that you help them help you.”

The other prostitutes clapped, whistled, and laughed – though the sound carried the nervous edge of desperately chasing away fear – as Kayleen spun away, and strutted haughtily away from the cowed man.

Raven snickered, and Mindblind chuckled approvingly as he watched Kayleen walk away. It was a big change from the timid, frightened woman he’d first met at the Cat – and he liked it. “Okay, Bub, what’s your name then?”

Once again pale and obviously as surprised as anyone by the outburst, he replied, “I... I am Pompeil Harrold, of the Freeland Harrolds.” He regained a little composure as he spoke his name, probably expecting it to carry great weight. “I am a trader of rare goods, as I’m sure that you’re well aware.”

“You’ll have to pardon me if I call him hey you,” Raven sneered, and then walked away toward the bound prisoners.

“Never heard of you, Pomp.”

Mindblind ignored the correction from Pompeil that immediately – and inevitably – followed.

“Whoever sent the fuckers that killed the assholes that snatched you is gonna start wondering why they haven’t come back before long. I’d rather not be here when they come to find out. Start grabbing canteens and filling them up from the barrel on that wagon over there.”

Though he looked as though he was about to protest, a narrowing of Mindblind’s eyes apparently made him think better of it. “Y-yes. Of course.”

When he turned to follow Raven, he found himself almost face-to-face with Yani.

“I had to cut part of it off that was all bloody. What do you think?” She asked, and struck a provocative pose. The shirt she wore had a deep neckline, leaving the upper swell of her breasts exposed, and she’d cut it off just below those attributes, leaving her midriff bare.

“Yeah, that works,” he said, more than a little uncomfortable around the strange woman, and wondering what it was with people getting in his way any time he tried to go somewhere the last couple of days. He stepped to the side around her. “I need to get over there and find out what those guys know.”

“Of course. My sister can be such a slave driver. Nothing like me,” she said as he continued toward Raven.

The unconscious murderer stirred and groaned as Mindblind approached. Raven said, “Hope he knows something, because these two weren’t told anything.”

“Could be lying,” He suggested with an ominous stare at the two captives.

“Maybe. Told them that they had two choices. Tell me what I want to hear and we leave ‘em tied up loose in the wagon when we go. Otherwise, we pile the bodies on top of them, and they hope that whoever wants them dead shows up to finish the job before the plains cats dig them out of the pile.”

“Please, we’re told good money to take women. That is all,” one of the captives blurted out, the words barely understandable between his fright and his accent.

“Probably scraped them all off the floor of a taproom somewhere,” Raven suggested. “The only thing they were really supposed to do is die.”

“What’s the game then?” Mindblind wondered aloud, and then thought of something. “Why’d you grab the pretty boy?”

“He say he rich. Big reward,” the same sun-browned man answered who had spoken before.

Then, Mindblind asked the question that was burning in his brain. “Who killed Delly?”

“The older redhead with the big tits,” Raven supplied.

The captive pointed to the unconscious man. “Them – we kill no one.”

Having apparently heard Delly’s name, Kayleen walked over and said, “He had a mark on his hand. A knife.”

Raven turned to the blonde prostitute and pointed at the back of her hand, near the wrist. “Right here?”

“Yes, the point down,” Kayleen answered.

Raven nodded toward the collapsed tent and said, “Think we found him.” She took Kayleen’s hand, and when the woman hesitated, she said, “It will only take a second – I promise.”

Kayleen took a deep breath before offering a determined nod.

Too absorbed in dealing with the possibility that the man he wanted to see dead might already be, Mindblind completely missed the uncharacteristic softness in Raven’s voice.

The three walked over to the contorted body, and Raven lifted his hand. “Is that it?”

“Yes,” Kayleen answered, her face already ashen, and looking worse by the moment.

“Go on,” Raven told her, and the blonde hurried away. She then looked at Mindblind and said, “Sorry. At least he went slow and bad.”

“Not slow enough,” Mindblind growled. He then shook his head and said, “Doesn’t matter.”

Raven stood up, and kicked the dead man in the face. “None of this makes any sense. These three were killers. Maybe not the best, but they killed for a living. Someone paid some good gold for them, on top of whatever coppers they tossed to the drunks.”

Gasps and yelps from the prostitutes drew Mindblind’s attention to the third captive, who had apparently awakened to struggle against his bonds.

“Let’s go squeeze him a bit,” Raven said as she walked past.

The murderer continued to struggle against his bonds, though he surely understood the futility. Unlike the other two captives, he was literally hogtied, with his hands and wrists bound together. When Mindblind’s shadow fell upon him, he froze and stared with a defiant look on his face.

“Who paid the blood price?” Raven demanded.

“I will tell you nothing, pujata.”

Even if he hadn’t known that the word was Draxnian for whore, Mindblind could have easily guessed the general meaning. Raven rolled her eyes, and promptly launched a kick.

Mindblind winced. The breath blasted from the murderer’s lungs, followed by a cough that left spittle – and probably bile – running from the corner of his mouth.

Remarkably, the man croaked, “Nothing.”

“Told you he was a killer,” Raven said in a conversational tone of voice as the man at her feet coughed and gagged again. “Probably a guild initiate. He took an oath, and he’s not taking any chances that the Lord of Murder isn’t really dead to exact the price of breaking it in the hells.”

“Kill me. Tell you nothing.”

Mindblind was just about to say that they were wasting their time when Raven reached into the pouch at her belt. Rather than remove anything, she shook her head as if changing her mind, and then turned to walk toward the fire. She returned with a branch, red hot coals glowing on its tip. “Kill you? Where’s the fun in that?”

The man’s previously hard eyes went wide when Raven knelt down and poked the stick close to his skin.

“Who paid the blood price?”

She gave him a few seconds to answer, and then moved the stick closer. The murderer wriggled, desperately trying to move away.

“Who paid the blood price?”

His face a mask of horror, the murderer screamed, “The Lakeshore Man! The Lakeshore Man!”

“Fuck!” Raven cursed, and then tossed the branch back toward the fire.

Confused, Mindblind asked, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that this job came from the guild. He doesn’t know who hired him. Only the guildmaster does. That’s just a fake name he was supposed to use with contacts.”

Mindblind snorted in resignation. The man who had killed Delly was dead. Raven had recovered her sister. There was no reason for them to pursue this any farther, and plenty of reasons not to. “Let’s just get the hell out of... The fuck?!”

Mindblind jumped back as an ear-piercing screech split the night. Before his brain could register what was happening, Yani had stabbed her borrowed knife into the assassin’s chest. The blade ripped into his flesh three more times before Raven managed to grab her sister’s hand and wrench the dagger away.

“Yani, it’s not him. It’s not him.”

As quickly as it had arisen, the murderous rage in Raven’s sister vanished from her face. “It isn’t?” She looked down and giggled at the now dead man. “Oh, it isn’t, is it? Oops.”

Yani’s eyes rolled up in her head, and she fell into a dead faint in her sister’s arms.

“Raven?” Mindblind said, at a loss for words, and in complete disbelief of what he’d just witnessed.

“She... She needs her tea. If we come across a stream, the stuff grows everywhere. The barbarians chew the leaves to have visions. For some reason, it keeps her from having them. She’s fine as long as she has it.”

Yani stirred and mumbled, “My head hurts.” A second later, she noticed her bloody hands. “What?”

“Just go wash up.”

“Okay,” Yani answered, her voice monotone.

The other prostitutes gave her a wide berth as she shambled toward the wagon where everyone had washed earlier.

Mindblind asked, “What do we do if...”

“I’ll keep an eye on her until we find some of the leaves,” Raven cut him off to answer. “I promise that I’ll explain later. Let’s just get the fuck out of here.”

“Right,” he responded, and then set to the task of getting them all moving as quickly as possible.

****

Raven’s guess proved far too optimistic. Everyone was exhausted, most were wearing shoes that didn’t fit properly – or none at all – and the prostitutes were hardly accustomed to walking anywhere. The sun had already slipped past its high point before the ragtag troupe could see the farming village.

Mindblind adjusted the bow slung over his shoulder, unused to the encumbrance. The weapons were fine, and he wasn’t about to leave any of them behind. A pair of prostitutes carried the others. The various daggers and knives that the dead men no longer needed provided weapons for all of the women – save Yani.

As had happened numerous times on the journey, she was the first to collapse next to the glorified animal trail they followed, panting for breath. Raven had forced her sister to chew some of the leaves along the way, and the change in the prostitute was like night and day. Yani certainly seemed to notice and react to her surroundings now – complaining bitterly the whole time.

“Come on, Yani. We’re almost there,” Raven encouraged while tugging on her sister’s shoulder.

Everyone else was on the verge of collapse as well, so Mindblind said, “Let’s just give ‘em a rest.”

Raven blew out a sharp, irritated breath. “Okay.”

A look back the way they’d come revealed the plains stretching off into the horizon – an ocean of grass dotted with islands of trees. He had no doubt that the two captives he’d released were making far better time. After what they’d been through, it was hardly surprising that they fled as though every demon in the hells pursued them.

When he noticed Kayleen trembling as she tried to raise a canteen to her lips, Mindblind walked over to her. She’d offered to carry one of the small packs that he’d put together with supplies, and thus bore a more difficult burden than most of the women. “You holdin’ up okay?”

“I suppose that this is what I get for dreaming of seeing new places,” she responded with a wan smile. After pushing a sweat-soaked lock of hair back from her face, she said, “I haven’t thanked you, or apologized. When I first saw you, I thought... I said...”

He cut her off, “No need. You’re doing your part.”

A nasally snore made Mindblind’s nerves itch as Kayleen nodded her understanding and took another drink. Pompeil had a knack for falling asleep instantly, and had done so at each and every stop.

“Hey, I think there’s a lake over there,” one of the prostitutes remarked.

“Oh, that would feel so good,” another of the women groaned.

Mindblind spotted the cattails a short distance away, and thought that lake was a rather grandiose term for what was likely there. It was a pond at best.

A still irritated Raven walked over and began, “Oh for fucking...”

Though more than ready to return to civilization as well, Mindblind could see life popping into the eyes of the other women at the prospect of the cool water. “We look bad enough. If that bunch are old bluebloods, we’re gonna have a hard enough time getting in without them smelling us a mile away too.”

Raven grinned at him, though he knew that the expression was pure sarcasm. “Fine then. You can keep the watch first.”

With that, she waded through the grass toward the cattails. The other women followed hot on her heels. Soon enough, the sound of splashing, content sighs, and laughter reached Mindblind on the breeze. He stayed alert, though nothing seemed remotely threatening.

After a few minutes, the merchant started awake with a snort. He looked around to find himself alone with Mindblind. “What?” he muttered as he sat up.

“Pond down there. If you want to wash the stink off, you’d best go now,” Mindblind explained.

“Pond? What? Where?”

Fuckin’ pampered pretty-boy, Mindblind thought. “C’mon – it’s this way.”

As soon as the water came into view, the merchant stumbled, his mouth agape. Mindblind chuckled, fully understanding the reaction. It was hard to ignore all the nude women with the sunlight sparkling on their wet skin as they washed in the shallow pond. Even though he’d seen all of them unclad before, it was a far different picture in the light of day, when they weren’t sick with fear.

Raven strode out of the water, carrying the shirt and panties she wore beneath her protective dark clothing. She let out a content sigh, completely unashamed of her nudity, and smoothed back her dark hair with her free hand. “Okay, this was a good idea,” she admitted. “Give me a minute, and you can have a dip.”

“Tryin’ to catch flies, Pomp?” Mindblind asked the still-stunned merchant.

Pompeil snapped his mouth shut and walked toward the edge of the pond.

“Not much point in keeping watch,” Mindblind remarked as Raven pulled on her underthings.

“Yeah – still,” she said, selecting two of her daggers.

Whistles and catcalls greeted the merchant stripping to his breeches and Mindblind removing his armor. Pompeil knelt on the shore to wash his clothing first, but Mindblind simply tossed the garments he wore beneath his armor into the pond ahead of him. Women floated together to whisper when he dropped his pants. He was hard as a rock – hardly a surprise considering the scenery.

Almost all of the prostitutes had shunned him on visits to the Cat, and a few had openly refused to accept him in their beds before he’d fallen in with Delly. It was a far different story in the pond, with all the women staring at him, making suggestive comments, and even wading over to touch him as he washed.

Whenever he glanced back at Raven, she always seemed to be rolling her eyes.

Though Pompeil was doing his best to ignore similar treatment and a few playful splashes, his face remained bright red the whole time.

It was a damp, refreshed, and far better smelling group that set out a short while later on the final leg of the journey to the town.

“Trouble,” Raven grumbled, upon seeing several men assembling near the first buildings ahead. A few held weapons, and others wielded farm implements pressed into the duty.

The scene was almost surreal. Though the clothing the men wore was made of wool, linen, and other materials that he would expect in a farming village, it was all cut to approximate fashions similar to what Pompeil wore. The place was likewise constructed with facades to disguise the barns and log structures. It looked like a mockery of descriptions that Mindblind had heard of larger cities.

“What is your business here?” One of the men shouted as Raven and Mindblind approached at the head of their group.

Mindblind tapped Raven on the shoulder, and then waved Pompeil forward. Raven grinned, guessing his sudden flash of inspiration, and agreeing with it.

“Okay, Pomp, go tell them who you are,” Mindblind said.

The merchant puffed out his chest, straightened his shoulders, and strode forward confidently.

“I am Pompeil Harrold, of the Freeland Harrolds, and I stand before you, escaped from kidnapping and murder most foul...”

Raven and Mindblind shared a chuckle when the merchant finished his soaring rhetoric some time later, and he gestured for them to follow him into the village, having received a warm invitation of hospitality.

Civilization at last – strange as the place was.

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