Hidden Blade

Remnant: Book of Xiandol Chapter 10

Herzeg warmed his hands with the mug of water heated by the fire. One of the women fanned at it to keep the smoke from rising up against the wind. Bits of cold precipitation had begun to blow their way into the mountainside crevice. Gul returned from his pack with bits of dried ration and sat beside Herzeg.

“We’ve seen nothing so far this way.” He said bluntly.

“There’s still plenty of mountain.”

“And fewer men to traverse it.” The forge-hand responded. “This is becoming unsustainable.”

“How many billets do we have now, both here and back at the riverbed?”

“Forty-seven, last I counted.”

Herzeg counted on his fingers. “Five, maybe six for each of us. Any extras split between you and myself.”

Serinda caught word of the negotiations and joined the two men. “You’re counting the women in, I assume?”

Herzeg studied the mage’s face in the glow of the fire. “Yourself, of course. I mean, this is all your idea.” He lowered his head and spoke just above a whisper. “The others can simply live off what their husbands earn. Most women have no use for coin.”

Serinda huffed and leaned back against the rock behind her. “Do what you think will make everyone happy, that’s what I brought you on for.”

A shuffling of rock from beyond the glow of the fire pulled up Herzeg and several other’s attention. The leader felt at his belt to make sure the short blade was still at the ready. “Good evening,” Carlyle’s voice came their way first before he came up over the outcropping.

Herzeg stood and secured the furs over his shoulders. He studied the plain-looking stranger, as well as the second long-haired man that came to accompany him. “Other travelers out this far?”

“Yes, we happened to notice the glow of your fire,” Carlyle spoke earnestly. “I don’t suppose we could share in its heat?”

Serinda stared at the men as they came closer to the fire and the ring of men about it. She earned a glance from Kensley, who was stuck close to the first stranger. She retreated slightly and took note of where the two men had come from, and if there were others following.

“It can’t hurt.” Herzeg returned to his seat on the rock, still warily holding to his belt. “Unfortunately, that’s about all we can share.”

Carlyle stepped before the fire and warmed his hands. He caught sight of the injured man, with ankle between wooden splints. “Oh, an unfortunate one. No wonder you’ve taken up in some desolate place. What brings you out here?”

Kensley’s eyes flashed about warily. He caught the look of some of the others, who held gazes locked in distrust. Gul spoke up. “Hunting. There’s been a pack of wolves about here, and they’ve gotten a few of our flock already, what few we have.”

“Wolves, this far south?” Carlyle hummed and raised his eyebrows. “A lot of you to just hunt some wolves. And I don’t see any bows about, either.”

Herzeg huffed and scratched at his stomach before standing and waddling off away from the fire, as nonchalantly as possible. Carlyle offered him a glance before returning his attention to the others.

“What about you two?” The forge-hand changed the subject.

“Interesting you ask,” Carlyle answered, counting the men one by one in silence. Including the leader who had walked off, there were four, on top of three women to round off the group. Carlyle shifted back and urged Kensley closer to the fire. “We noticed an old camp back up near the river. We thought something bad might have happened. You weren’t run off by your wolves, by any chance?”

Herzeg approached again, from behind the two of them. “The only wolves would be the ones from the capital.” As he spoke, Kensley jutted back. “Fine horses you have back there, enforcers.”

A few of the others stood and backed away. Serinda stood stiffly at the other side of the fire. Carlyle sighed and felt at his thigh. “We’re going to need to search your belongings. We know what you’ve been up to, and we’re duty-bound to take anything not made under Xiandolan decree.”

“Serinda, might you help them?” Herzeg said pointedly.

“Make this worth my while.” Serinda huffed, conjuring a gust of wind, sending a rush of flames from the fire across the enforcers. Carlyle was able to shield his face from the licks of the flames, while Kensley pulled him back by his arm. The women ducked away from the fight, and some of the men pulled roughly-forged daggers from their belts.

Kensley regained his balance, back to back with the Captain, before he extracted his sword. “Lay down your weapons, or we will use force!”

“Calm your nerves.” Carlyle hushed back. “The worst of the bunch is their mage, and she could have done a lot more already.”

“Leave now, and we’ll spare your lives,” Herzeg directed. “We’ll even allow you one of your horses.”

“Boss,” Gul pleaded, circling back around to Herzeg. “Let’s just give them what they want, and avoid more injuries.” He leaned in close to whisper as they met side-by-side. “Remember, the majority of it is still back at the riverbed.”

“Take, take, take, that’s all Halmalch and his people ever do.” The leader beat nervously on his thigh. “What have they provided us, besides beaten-up tools in return?”

Carlyle shook his head. “The Kingdom’s forges are barren of iron. We have barely enough to outfit our men, let alone provide tools for the people of the land. You’ve been using your mage to aid in the unearthing of the ore, have you? Share with us your methods, and we can both benefit.”

Herzeg sneered. “You say that, with your own partner jutting a fine sword our way?”

“At ease, Kensley.” Carlyle spoke back to the long-haired man, still on edge and posed toward the leader and the forge-hand. His breath was suddenly jolted from his lungs as a rock impacted upon his chest from a woman at the edge of the firelight.

“Just go! Leave us be.”

“We are duty-bound!” Carlyle reiterated, holding his breast.

“We’ve heard!”

Kensley glanced back to the crux in the rock where a collection of packs and tarps were collected, laden with various materials inside. He pushed back and nudged at the supplies with his foot, rolling them open. His eyes darted back and forth toward the others. “Is this where you’re keeping your contraband? Captain, help me.”

“Leave that be!” Herzeg growled. From his waist, he extracted a short dagger and tossed it from between tight fingers out toward Kensley. Carlyle reacted first and moved in front of the blade, where it buried itself into his shoulder.

“Captain!” Kensley cried out, rushing past him to subdue the attacker. Herzeg stepped back over the uneven ground as Kensley thrust his sword outward.

Carlyle held at his arm, before noticing another man coming his way. He dodged the attack of another dagger and took grasp of the man’s arm before tossing him down onto the hard ground with a dull cry.

Kensley swung wildly, disregarding his footing. Herzeg crouched about and grabbed up a stone before lancing it at his attacker. Kensley swung to block the rock. The blade of the sword impacted upon it, causing the base of the sword to crack just above the handle and fall apart. The top of the blade fell to the ground in a clatter.

Carlyle yanked the dagger from his bicep and looked for other attackers. Serinda was across the fire, conjuring again the power between her hands. The captain held his breath and jumped the flickering blaze, shunting the mage, and forcing her arm behind her back. “At first glance, I didn’t suspect you of being of mage blood.”

“What do you know?” Serinda huffed and struggled. She tossed her hair back and glanced to the other men, still fighting. “I’d worry more about your partner than myself.”

Kensley had dropped his broken weapon and had proceeded to try to force Herzeg into submission with kicks and punches. From behind the long-haired man, the forge-hand was preparing a large rock with which to strike him from behind.

Carlyle kicked Gul’s legs out from under him, forcing him to fall hard. Kensley had, in turn, forced Herzeg to a rock, his arm at the man’s neck. “Don’t try and struggle.” Kensley seethed, his breath ragged.

Carlyle pulled his partner away from the now helpless man. “Leave him.”

“But-” Kensley struggled, then relented, looking to the trail of blood coming from Carlyle’s wound.

“Force only begets more force.” The captain declared. He turned back to the pile of supplies and trifled through them with his foot. His eye caught the dull sheen of the uneven bricks of iron. Kensley eyed the others who looked on silently as Carlyle took the hard-earned good up in his side bag. “That shall do. The coming winter is going to make any more work like this unlikely for these folk, I imagine. Come, Kensley.”

The long-haired man huffed and trailed Carlyle out. Herzeg held at his throat and kept place beside the rock. Serinda dashed out after the two enforcers as they began their walk back to the horses.

“Enforcer.” She called out, catching up with them as they were unloading the iron into their packs. “Take me with you. These fools have nothing to offer me now.”

Carlyle looked to Kensley, who warily bit at his lip. The captain glared at her. “How imprudent. We’re headed off to the capital. Are you sure a mage of your sort wishes to end up there?”

“Sir, are you sure?” Kensley said under his breath.

“The capital is indeed my home,” Serinda spoke up, keeping watch over her shoulder. “But not the Sanctum. I beg you.”

Carlyle stepped up upon his horse and looked to the mage, visible only in the slight light of the moon visible through the clouds. He offered a hand down. “Come on. You’re lucky I wasn’t given any direction regarding any magi this time.”

Serinda pursed her lips and stepped up to the animal. “Your kindness is appreciated. There is… they have more billets buried in the bed of the river back at the old camp you found. Herzeg and these awful men do not deserve it. I can show you exactly where it lies.”

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