We found ourselves breaking into a sprint as Riordan stopped ducking around tents and through tall grass and hit a tree line. Looking back over his shoulder every few steps, he made good time through a lightly wooded area to where Minerva was waiting with Ahwadi and two horses.
"Look, it's the skinny creep!"
"I say we pound him."
"Yeah, give him a taste of the Pig!"
"Gentlemen!" Minerva's voice cut through the rabble. "Yes, you gentlemen, and I use the term loosely. You will not molest my servant or we will wait to liberate you until I return to my home in the west. Then you can see if you prefer to be slaves of the mace or slaves of the demon king."
There was absolute silence for the span of three breaths. Then somebody spoke. "Holy crap."
Minerva's head snapped around, black eyes flashing. "You! Do not try my patience!" That time the silence stuck.
Mounting up, Riordan shook his head. "Madam, if you don't mind my saying so, that is really creepy stuff."
She didn't answer him because she was looking at me where I was standing in back of the crowd of thugs. She raised her eyebrows and gave me a kind of questioning look.
"Um. It seemed like a good idea at the time," I told her.
She looked up towards the heavens and shook her head a little, but all she said was, "I am glad you appear to be unharmed, Osgun. We will have you free shortly, do not worry."
"So he is there!" Riordan exclaimed as the warriors of the mace gave me looks of newfound respect. "Ozzie, if you can hear me -- you have the brains of a week-old fish turd!" The looks were short lived.
"Fish Turd is better than Half Pig, wouldn't you say, Squibbs?"
"Stroke of genius, I'd say."
"I'd watch my tongues if I were you," the tall knight I knew only as McAssfree said quietly. "Whatever we call him, he seems to be an associate of a powerful sorceress from the west. If we conduct ourselves with even a modest amount of decorum, we may benefit from this greatly. If we do not, we may suffer perils that outweigh even a thousand thousand years in this mace together."
"...what did he say?"
"He said 'shut up', you illiterate gob."
"Well why didn't he just say 'shut up' then?"
"Because if your mummy pays for nice fancy armor like that, she wants to hear you talk like a faggot or she cries, that's why. Now shut up like he says!"
Frubuck grabbed the guy by the throat and pulled him off balance. "I know you don't have a problem with man loving."
"Aw, c'mon, Frubuck, it was jus a figure of speech. Why you gotta take everything so personal?"
Completely oblivious to the conversation happening in the mace, or where ever we were, Riordan was talking. "I don't think anyone saw me, but I'm pretty sure they're going to guess what happened to their magic mace."
"We should move quickly," Minerva agreed. They nudged their horses into a canter and made for the caravan. What a process that was. Though the wagons were too far away to run the horses straight through, we certainly couldn't keep up with the pace. It was okay for those of us with really long legs when they were trotting the horses, but that lope thing was just too fast. We didn't get tired -- at least I didn't -- but every time we started to fall too far behind the mace, there was this horrible painful sensation and we'd reappear right beside the mace. Without knowing the terrain any better, they had no choice but to head for where they were fairly certain the road would be and then ride along the road to catch up with the caravan. Evening was upon us before they finally caught back up with the tail end of the wagon train.
"I'll be right back," Riordan promised and then cantered his horse further ahead.
Minerva looked back nervously over her shoulder. "Trouble?" asked one of the caravan guards.
"We are not certain," Minerva admitted. "I have no evidence to think someone is following us, but I find myself uneasy."
"We'll keep a sharper watch. Your little friend there carrying word further up the line?"
"All right then."
She rode forward a little further to meet Riordan trotting his horse back. She slipped onto the back of one of the supply wagons with the mace and accepted the bundle that Riordan handed her. Open a flask from within the bundle, she began pouring some fluid out onto the mace. "Let's hope this works," she said. A sizzling sound and smoke began rising from the weapon.
"What's she doing?" one of my fellow prisoners demanded.
"Acid! They're honestly going to try to destroy the mace!"
"Dey good as dead," snickered Unjabog, pointing. Advancing upon the road were the warriors of the orc tribe, moving fast. It appears they had known a shortcut.
If he was rooting for my friends' demise, then he had forgotten that Minerva could hear us clearly. Before I had a chance to call out, she had glanced in the direction that Unjabog was pointing, following his extended arm, and spied the would-be assailants. She lifted the still-steaming mace and pointed at them, uttering the command word to release us.
The debilitating brightness was gone, leaving me feeling well, strong and full of the most single-minded hate imaginable for those particular orcs. Before I thought about what I was doing, I found myself charging for them full tilt, swinging my chain, accompanied by the rest of the inhabitants of the mace.
There was no stopping to plan; it wasn't that kind of conscious thought. I just waded in and started whacking. I couldn't really tell you how many orcs there were, except to say that once we hit the middle of them, there didn't look like all that many compared to us. More, but not a lot more. Between the knights in their flashy armor slicing and Gortjon picking up his enemies and just throwing them, the attackers seemed to have a sudden inspiration along the lines of becoming peaceful farmers, because it didn't take long for them to decide to run. I barely had time to enjoy my nice little rhythm of finishing off Gortjon's opponents on the bounce, catching them in the head with the swinging hook as they were getting to their feet, before there weren't any more to bash. It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world to file back and take up defensive stances around Minerva. The last of us had just taken up his position when I had a feeling like something in my head snapping. From the looks on the faces around me, I wasn't the only one.
"There, gentlemen. You should be free." Minerva stood up from the smoking remains of the mace.
"What's going on here?" I realized that several caravan guards had shown up, weapons drawn. "Who are all these soldiers?"
"These fifteen men, including my trusted family guardsman, were imprisoned in this magic weapon. They have just been liberated."
"Major Portnoyhunt of Caer Dunn at your service. I will be returning promptly to my homeland, for I miss it sorely, but some of these gentlemen may seek employment with your caravan until they gather their bearings."
"No shit." The caravan guard looked impressed.
"UnnnnhhhhARRRR!" Gortjon Unjabog worked himself up from a complaining growl to a full roar. "I give you filthy pighumpers fifteen minutes, den if I ever see any you ever again, I smash every bone in you ugly little bodies! Forjace! You an me goin' back, get some revenge. Dey wanna know who clan leader, we show em."
Forjace kind of made a face and said something in orc that sounded an awful lot like making an excuse to go the other way. It seemed to be a mistake, as Gortjon turned around and slugged him in the face, staggering him back about ten feet.
"I no ask you what you want to do, I tell you what you doin!" He turned around to give us one last hateful glare. "You come by see me so I can kill you. 'Cept Deeter. He make good wife to give neighboring clan." With that, Gortjon took out something best left covered, urinated on the shoes of the guys nearest him, and left, Forjace trailing sullenly along behind.
McAssfree broke the stunned silence, turning to Minerva and getting down on one knee to take her hand. He kissed her fingers with a look of pure gratitude. "You have freed us from the vilest kind of imprisonment imaginable, my lady. I will be ever in your debt. My children and grandchildren will be in your debt, I shall see to it. Should you ever need anything, simply call upon house McAvry of Caer Lorann and it shall be done, mistress." He gave her fingers another kiss and I began to get a little pissed off. Eventually I was going to have to lose Minerva to some jerk, but losing her to one of the guys in the mace was just more than I could handle, even if McAss& McAvry was one of the better ones.
"Yeah," I cleared my throat, "but you have to be heading back right now, right?" He gave me a bemused look and Minerva raised her eyebrows, but good ol' Portnoyhunt stepped in.
"Actually, Captain McAvry, I would be honored if you wished to accompany me back north and I do intend to leave right this very moment. Private Cartine," he turned to the other guy who wore the fancy armor, but his tone was a lot cooler. "Are you also traveling home immediately?"
"I thought I'd like to spend a little time by myself. No offense," Cartine returned with an equally polite level of unfriendliness. Within short order and with surprisingly little fuss, almost everyone had dispersed, singly or in groups and mostly with threats to do grave bodily harm to each other should they ever meet again. Frubuck and Squibbs elected to hire on with our caravan, earning Squibbs a volley of kissy sounds that made his face darken with rage.
"We can follow 'em and kill 'em, but if you travel with me you'll eventually get more of the same. You could cover yourself with women and it wouldn't matter. It ain't about what's true, it's about how they can piss you off. Either learn to get over it or go your own way," was Frubuck's take on the matter. To me, he said only, "You don't piss me off. Stick to your end of the caravan and it'll stay that way."
I edged a few steps toward Riordan as everyone took off their separate ways and sent an innocent glance after Frubuck. "Maybe you can ask him if he wants to play mancala later."
He glared up at me. "You know I just saved your life, right? Who risked their life and the virginity of their backside to sneak into the orc camp to save you? Even after who told you not to be stupid and that it was a con? And what kind of gratitude do I get?"
"Please do not take so little care with your safety again," Minerva said, coming over as Riordan stalked away. "And tell Master Seawolf 'thank you'."
"Yes, ma'am," I said obediently.Next week - The western lands