This chapter is dedicated to my little brother, who thinks my writing is gratuitous, and who is probably right :P
The place where the slavers had camped for the night was out in the open, and it had taken Keel only a short while to find it.
Compared to the size of the fire, it was much bigger than he had expected.
"They must've scoured every village from here to Port Kelting," he thought in disgusted awe. Why had nobody had stopped them? He wandered close, and managed to creep within a few metres of the site, where he crouched, undetected, as he appraised the camp. Despite himself, he was coldly curious about people who were brave, or foolish enough to stray into his mountains. As he looked over the camp, and observed the trespassers, Keel knew the dominant trait here.
He could see the slavers, distinguished by their colourful clothes, their lack of bonds and their heavy clubs, wandering around, occasionally shoving at their captives who were huddled together, seeking refuge from both the early morning chill and the slavers' blows, their torn and filthy clothes doing little to cover them.
A few of them held what appeared to be crusts of bread, and were gnawing at them, their eyes wary of both the slavers and their fellow slaves, as though half-expecting the meagre fare to be snatched from them.
The slavers seemed nervous as they skirted around a few of the wooden-box ridden carts, but for the most part they seemed to feel secure in their surroundings.
Then the noise started. As though by some unseen signal or heralded by the dull clank of metal that puzzled Keel, a series of sharp cries began. This was accompanied by a man swearing viciously at the "unspeakable profanity" of the camp, and various other voices calling out insults, complaints, or just joining in the general racket. As he watched, two of the slavers hauled a man out of a crate, and pushed him jeeringly towards another slaver with a slate and charcoal.
The man was riddled with fresh bruises, and Keel recognised him as the village headman's younger brother. Horunne, Keel thought, surprised that he remembered the name.
Horunne moved with laboured, shuffling steps, so uncharacteristic, that caused Keel to first hesitate in shocked recognition, and then to stiffen in rage.
Chains! They would chain their own race! Barbarians!
Chains were one of Keel's most potent hatreds- used to restrain his werebrethren who should have been left wild…
He had wondered why the humans did not run away. Whilst few of the men of Acriah's village had ever hunted this far from their homes, surely freedom was more important than uncertainty of what creatures might be out in the forest?
Keel felt the fury build inside him. He would alleviate this situation, and soon.
Nishva opened her eyes again as the narrow flap at the end of her enclosure opened, and a thin broth of what smelled like cabbage-flavoured water and a small hunk of bread appeared. She gave a wry grimace. Apparently, the gods did not wish for a cursing today. Ah well, there was always tomorrow.
Hungrily, Nishva devoured the scanty fare as she cursed her fate instead. If only… if she had only handled things differently, she would be… not safe.
There was no such thing as safety when you were a lone female. Still, she would not be in this predicament. She would not be caged. Shuddering, Nishva remembered the earlier days when she had beat her hands raw on the sides of the crate, the claustrophobia closing in on her… Dashing this thought from her mind, she concentrated on her list. She would be Free. She would continue her search... She shut her eyes to prevent the tears of hopelessness, and returned to her fitful doze. Then dreamed…
A small house stood on a hill, surrounded by thick woodland on either side, but a narrow winding trail joined this place to the main road. Flowers grew near the door, and a boy played near the front step, with a piece of wood, carved into the shape of a bird.
He wore a loose outfit of what appeared to be suede, and he had soft brown hair, cut short for the summer.
He turned, and called out to her, grinning cheekily, "Nishy! Guess whose form this is supposed to be?"
Nishva gasped. She knew dimly that it was just a dream, but she had not seen her brother since…
Tears sprang into her eyes.
"I'll play with you, but after I get rid of these," a child's voice replied.
Nishva turned, to see a much younger version of herself. She was burdened with a basket of nuts, and was in the process of hauling it up the path.
"Help me with these will you?"
Nishva followed the pair inside, and froze when she saw a man standing inside there.
Nishva launched herself at the man, but he didn't appear to notice her ghostly limbs attempting to beat him to death. She screeched her frustration, furious at being thwarted from tearing his eyes out.
Oblivious to the vengeful ghost floating before him, the man whom Nishva had always called her Uncle greeted the children, and Nishva watched, miserable as her younger self offered him some of the nuts from her basket.
It was then that she noticed the sweat beading on Uncle Bellan's forehead.
"Not just now. I am sorry to tell you this, but we have to go on a little journey. Your parents have…"
Nishva came violently awake. The silence was absolute. Even Nakayla had ceased her clamour.
The wind whistled eerily through the pine needles. Then Nishva heard it. Heavy breaths began to sound, harsh, angry breaths, then a strange throbbing growl.
Nishva gasped. No way… it… couldn't be. It wasn't possible.
Suddenly, the elated shouts of the slavers sounded.
"Whoa man, lookit that'n! He must be worth a heck of a lot in the arena!"
"Get the nets out boys, we catch the beast, and that's enough gold to live on forever!"
Testosterone-fuelled bellows of bravado coalesced into a cacophony, as Nishva listened to the slavers' rushing about, urged on by their greed of the "perfect catch"- a wild beast that was not running away.
Idiots. No mere beast would stand still for that long and wait for them to attempt capture. Nishva muttered her opinion of them in words stronger than her previous thought, and gritted her teeth. This was not going to be pretty.
As if taking her utterance as a signal, the beast emitted an ominous howl, which was echoed by the cries of fear from the slaves who were bound together to the carts outside, unable to run away.
Sealed inside the crates, the other captives who had caused the slavers more trouble could only listen, their various expressions mixtures of trepidation and fear, as they attempted to peek through the narrow cracks in the slats of their individual prisons. All except for two. Nakalya giggled hysterically, while Nishva waited in bleak anticipation.
She was not disappointed.
Sounds came. A low animal growl of hatred, and Nishva saw a sudden flash of movement.
Seconds later, the sound of rending flesh, and a man screamed in agony in ghoulish harmony with those slaves trapped outside, forced to witness the massacre. She smelt rather than saw his bowel release as his scream was suddenly choked off.
A body collided with her crate, rocking it, and as the man rolled off, Nishva caught a glimpse of where his throat had been.
The slavers went wild. Their previous clamours of excitement changed to terror, crescendoing to a peak as an orchestration of tortured shrieks and mauling of flesh echoed off the mountains, accompanied by thunderous crashes and piercing, enraged howls.
Peering through the narrow gap in her crate, Nishva saw splashes of red that flickered in the firelight, and smelt the carnage, as grown men had their intestines ripped out and screamed their death cries.
The slaves caught outside stopped screaming, and a few even began yelling out encouragement to the beast, having realised that it was leaving them alone.
The others cowered, whimpering softly, waiting for the beast to finish with their captors and then start on them, a few of them laughing hysterically as the beast roared again, this time in triumph.
At last, a few lethal sounding crunches echoed throughout the clearing.
Then silence again.
Finally. Perhaps her journey was not entirely in vain after all.