|Credit: Roy Lathwell|
“They look pale,” Jira whispered to Perin. “None of them have ever seen battle?”
“The hazards of a long peacetime,” Perin replied. “Unless you would call attempting to subdue a pack of the mad a battle. They have done much of that in the last year.”
Jira grimaced. “Our prisoners look half-starved,” she said. “If a cohort fights with its stomach, then it’s no wonder we gained the upper hand so quickly.”
“We did have the advantages of preparation, as well as superior arms and magic,” Perin reminded her. “And, of course, our force is well-fed. Although I suspect that many will go hungry tonight, by choice.”
“Hundred.” A runner joined them on the breakwater. “I was told to report to you, as you had a message to be carried.”
“Indeed,” said Perin. “Write this out formally. To Captain Anlayt, of Ak’koyr: We were set upon by four fastboats from the East. The cohort here repelled them successfully, sinking two and capturing a third, with light losses. However, the watchers spotted four more fastboats moving south toward the Straits. They will have likely reached you before this message—”
“Hundred,” said Jira, “I have a captive falcon. Let us send the message that way, to give Ak’koyr time to prepare.”
“In that case, we have the luxury of time. Runner, you are dismissed for now. Let us question the captives. Perhaps they will tell us what their fellows intend.”
• • •
The captives were indeed Eastern, by their looks and refusal to speak the language of Camac. They marched silently, hands bound behind them and legs roped together, across the breakwater and into the small detention area. It most recently had housed the least violent of the mad, until all finally succumbed to whatever it was that The Madness did to them.
Perin summoned Striker Nars, who himself was Eastern, to speak to the prisoners. He gave other orders, which lightened the hearts of the soldiers receiving them. “They’ll talk, one way or the other,” he told Protector Jira with a smirk.
Striker Nars looked at the eight raiders, then put his right arm across his chest and lowered his head in the traditional Eastern salute. One of the captives began speaking rapidly, but Nars cut him off. “I am not your brother!” he hissed in the Eastern tongue. “You attacked us with no provocation, and your mage killed several soldiers under my command!”
“Apologies, sir—” one of the raiders began, speaking in Camac’s language, then stopped. His fellows glared, but said nothing.
“Good,” said Nars. “We have established that you do speak the language of our nation—your former nation, as I understand it.” Two soldiers rolled a cart, covered with a large cloth, up to the cell. They saluted and departed. “Do you know what this is?” he asked them.
“Torture us all you will, barbarians,” another Easterner snarled. “We will die proudly, as soldiers of Ryddast.”
“I hope there is no need for that,” Nars said mildly. He whipped the cloth off the cart with a flourish, incidentally wafting the scent of roasted meat and fresh bread their way. He smiled, watching the wide-eyed prisoners trying not to lick their lips. “Answer a few questions, and then we’ll roll this cart in there. All of you look like you could use a decent meal. So tell me, what was your purpose?”
The Easterners looked at each other. “Food,” one said.
“After you answer my questions.”
“Eh? No, that’s why we came. The madmen. They destroyed much of our harvest last fall. Your Captain, the one who made his tour before the equinox, he and his crew looked well-fed.”
“Why not ask for aid, instead of throwing aside your allegiance?” Jira asked. “It was ever Camac’s tradition to see to the needs of our folk. Were we all that is left of Camac, we could have done at least a little.”
“Our lord is fond of asking, Why swear allegiance to a city of rubble?”
“And…” another looked at his comrades, scowled, then continued. “If we die, we die. That many less mouths to feed at home. Those who have the lord’s favor have what they need. Others…” he shrugged. Two of the others nodded.
“What of the other fastboats?” Perin prompted. “Where are they going?”
“Koyr. Their under-hill granaries should be intact. They will capture a larger ship and bring home what they can carry.”
Perin and Jira looked at each other for a moment, but Perin continued the questioning. “And the your fastboat, the one that retreated?”
“They will not return home, if that is your hope,” said one.
“As heavy-laden as they are, if they row hard, they could catch up with the others,” said another. “Are you finished with your questions?” This one stared pointedly at the food cart.
“One more question,” said Jira. “Why is your force all men?”
“It was always the tradition in the East to nurture and protect our women from harm,” one Easterner said piously. “Your crown has forced us to consider women little different from men, over the years, but we have regained more than our independence. We have regained our culture.”
A flock of harsh rejoinders came to mind, but Jira suppressed them. Waste not your words on those who will not hear, the saying went.
Perin nodded, and Nars opened the cell long enough to roll the cart in. The eight Easterners wasted no time setting to. “A fine last meal,” said one around a mouthful of meat.
“I would rather not see anyone executed, when so few are left,” said Jira. “You shall become laborers. Your first task, after you have eaten, is to name and lament your fallen comrades.” And you will be nurtured and protected yourselves, she thought sourly. And, like Eastern women, little more than property in time.