Wol was gone the next day, the girls and quite a few other people had been up early to see them off. Odda and a half dozen others departed with her, there seemed to be some urgency; the group had certainly been well armed. After the riders were out of sight the spectators began to disperse.
Remder called the girls over to where he and a half a dozen of his dogs were resting in the shade under the big oak. He puffed on a pipe, the smoke slowly dissipated in the still air, “Alright girls, the boss left me in charge while she and her crew are out having some fun. So this here is going to go one of two ways. The first option is you’ll stay up in the loft, out of sight and out of mind. If your families honour the ransom demands, you’ll find yourself back with your kin by this time next year, maybe earlier. The second option, is I allow you a bit of freedom, you’ll be able to come and go around the lake, so long as you have an escort. You’ll also need to treat me and the others with respect, we are free men and few of us could give two squirts about your noble linage. And, if you’re smart you’ll show and old man a bit of kindness, if you know what I mean.”
Gella thought she knew what he meant and was taken aback by the suggestion, this old bastard seemed just the sort Hetti had warned her of. Estrial on the other hand, gave a smile and a little curtsy, “My sister and I will give you no trouble, sir.”
“Drop that sir stuff right now. Remder or hey you.”
“Of course, Remder.”
“What about you missy?” The old man looked to Gella.
She took a moment, she certainly did not want to spend the next year trapped in the loft. Her voice had a bit of a quaver to it when she responded, “I’d like to be able to go to the lake.”
“Sure, who would not? So that’s settled. Now here’s the thing, I’m not spending time running around looking for folks to care for you. So I’m going to get my dogs to keep you safe. You all like dogs.”
Gella and Myr just nodded.
Estrial said, “I love dogs, Remder. Which one?”
“Well now, you’re the keen one, I can tell. I’ll give you Mitzy here, she’s my favourite, smartest of the bunch.” The bitch looked up at the sound of her name, gave a lazy wag of her tail then stood up and stretched. She was a large dog, though her breeding was low, a cross of who-knew-what.
Remder roughed the dog’s fur, just behind its head then scratched under her chin, “You let her get a good smell of you lass and here, give her this. It’s some jerked goblin, wouldn’t eat it myself mind you, but the dogs love the stuff.” Estrial followed the old man’s instructions and after a while he called the dogs attention and told it, “Protect.” Then she was told to do it all again and to pet the dog and again he told the dog, “Protect.” and then once more they went through the little ritual.
Myrtha seemed keen to have one of the dogs, she asked if she could have the smallest of the mutts. Remder shook his head, “No, he’s a nasty piece of work and doesn’t heed very well, best to leave that one with me.” Instead he called over one of the other bigger dogs and went through the same ritual of having the dog sniff Myr and then having her feed the dog and then telling it to protect. Again this little ritual was repeated three times.
Gella was nervous when he turned his attention to her. “What of you girly, seems you’re the slow one of the bunch, might be best to give you Hood. That way the two of you will be on equal footing.” Hood was also a big dog, though his long coat easily marked him as a Tannican Bloodhound, or at least mostly so. He did a lot of tail wagging and when he was standing, his head came to just under her chin. The same ritual was repeated, Gella nervously held out the meat, Hood had big teeth but he was very gentle taking it from her. After Remder said the third, “Protect.” Hood gave a loud woof and a nod.
Remder was not done, “Now these dogs will protect you, but they are not allowed up in the tree, so when you go to the loft you’ll need to tell them to stay. And, they should. Especially if you give a bit of food once in a while. Make sure they get water too.
Estrial then surprised Gella when she asked Remder to show her around the village, but more surprising was the tone of voice and the look she gave him. Gella almost puked, as it was she had to swallow a bit of bile. Yuck.
Remder smiled at Estrial, “Aren’t you just a precious flower. Come along then, I’ll show you a thing or two.” They left and most of the dogs followed along or ran ahead. Gella looked to Myr who seemed happy to sit in the shade with her dog.
“I’m going to the lake.”
“Okay, I’m going to stay here.”
Gella went down to the lake, Hood followed. Gella was a bit nervous being outside, she worried about Estrial, she wondered if her father was alive, she wondered if she would ever get home. After walking by the shore for a while she stopped and sat on a large rock. She had a good long cry, Hood seemed concerned and kept licking at her face. Eventually Hoods persistence had her laughing and after giving the dog a good ear scratching she continued to walk.
At the south end of the lake, near where a small watermill had been built she found some of the other people from the caravan. Most importantly she recognized Cobber Hollen, the captain of the guard. He sat off to one side of where the others were working at various tasks. His head was wrapped in a bloodstained cloth and one of his eyes seemed swollen shut and the right side of his face was badly bruised.
“Captain Hollen, I had not realized you were here.” She had walked up to him as had Hood. The others recognized her. Hollen however only raised his head slightly and gave her a vague look with his one good eye.
One of the women, Gella thought she had been one of the cooks for the caravan, approached, “I’m sorry Lady Gellatherial, Captain Hollen caught a glancing blow from one of the trees the bandits dropped on the caravan. He’s only been up and moving a couple of days now. We’re not sure there’s much of him left in there. He has said nothing. It’s a wonder he’s even alive.”
“How many others are here?”
“Well, a couple score of us were taken, though they’re not all here anymore. Most of the younger women were taken to the camps, we’ve not seen them since.”
“Is Hetti here?”
“No, my Lady, I’m sorry, she was killed in the attack.”
Gella felt a wave of sadness and brushed away a tear, “Well, what are you all doing?”
“Working, my lady”
“Why, have you tried to leave?”
“Some tried, maybe one or two of them escaped, but the rest were killed. Sorry my lady.”
“We have to find a way to escape.”
Hood said, “Woof.”
For many days after learning the fate of the surviving caravan folk, Gella had despaired. No one knew what had happened to her father. Of the twenty or so survivors, no one seemed inclined to try and escape. It seemed doubtful that Captain Hollen would regain his senses. Estrial seemed content to cater to Remder’s desires and Myr, when she was outside, rarely left the area under the oak and was more often up in the loft.
During this time, the majority of the bandits living in the surrounding camps had left. Some had headed off to the Freeton area, a few had gone south and others to the northeast. Soon there was only a couple of small outlaying camps with a score or so of bandits in each.
It was a little over a month after they had been brought to the loft before Gella had a glimmer of hope. Late one night Estrial had crawled into bed with her, which was unusual as she typically slept in the other bed with her sister. Gella could smell old sweat and sex on her, disgusted she started to sit but Estrial put and arm around her and shushed her, quietly she said, “I think I’ve come up with a way to get out of here.”
“How? What’s the plan?”
“I’m not telling you.”
“Shh, stay quiet. I am going to need your help. Do you want to leave?”
Gella nodded, “Yes.”
“Okay. I’ll need you to start taking walks in the early morning and I’m going to get Myr to go with you. Take a walk around the lake, be friendly to people. But, above all, don’t let my sister in on the secret. Just make sure the two of you are out for a walk, any morning when it’s not raining hard. Can you do that?”
“Good.” Estrial fell asleep beside her. Gella lay awake until it was nearly dawn.
That morning, and every morning since, Gella had gone for a walk, fair weather or rainy, she walked around the lake every morning. Most times Myrtha went with her. The dogs were always happy to tour around the lake, chasing frogs and other critters, though they never strayed far. Each morning they would visit the other people from the caravan, a few of which had been in Lord Horthram’s employ, were very happy to see Myr. The girl’s mood slowly improved. They always did a full circuit of the lake, often stopping to talk to some of the other women. People started to expect them and Gella eventually came to the realization that most of them were not bandits. Just folk.
A bit over a week after she had started the morning walks, Gella had the realization that she had not had her menses, possibly not for two months now. Yet she had not had the sickness. Maybe it was just stress. Another thing to worry about.
Wol’s wives payed them little attention though the other two hostages started to communicate a bit. The man, less than a decade Gella’s senior had been here for about four years. He was the son of the mayor of Freeton and spent much of his time playing a lute. The woman was cranky most of the time, she was over twice Gella’s age, maybe older. She was the sister of the Lord of Carskot, she had been abducted while out riding one afternoon and been Wol’s hostage for over a year. Neither of them were going to be ransomed. Wol was using them as leverage.
Finally, last night Estrial had come to Gella’s bed again, at least she had smelt better, lake water and soap.
“We will leave when Masri sets tomorrow night.”
“Thank the gods.”
“Stay awake, help Myr, don’t worry about bringing anything other than what you usually have.”
“What about the others?”
“Don’t worry about the other details. Just make sure you stay awake.”
So she had stayed awake and watched the most beautiful moon rise she had ever seen. When Masri was nearly set, and Kallen just a sliver above the trees, Gella went back into the loft, she woke Myrtha and helped her get dressed.
From below there was a brief commotion, a startled cry cut short, a thump. A couple of dogs started barking. In the other room the wives had not stirred. From below someone shouted at the dogs who fell silent. Gella’s heart was beating horribly fast and her mouth was dry.
With Myr close behind her, Gella descended down through the tree fort. They moved quietly, as they exited the house and were on the stairs leading to the barbican when Estrial joined them. She passed Gella a hooded lantern. On the lower platform they could hear someone had woken up, though they saw no one and made it outside. A number of the dogs came over, sniffing curiously, the three Remder had protecting them followed along as they headed to the lake.
Estrial seemed in no rush to get anywhere, the three of them were just out for a night time walk, few people were about, one man said hello as they walked past. Gella’s heart had stopped racing.
Myr, after everything that had just passed, still seemed sleepy headed and unimpressed at the nighttime walk she had been dragged into. Gella wondered if Estrial had killed the wives or any of the others. How would she even do that?
They had made it most of the way to the far end of the lake when Estrial stopped and suddenly sat on the sandy beach they had been crossing. She breathed deeply a couple of times and then retched quietly to the side. Gella looked around, but she saw no one.
Myrtha, “What’s wrong?”
“I think the mutton stew was off.” She wiped at her face with her arm and then stood up.
Estrial took her sister by the hand and they carried on across the small beach then over to the mill, the water wheel was not engaged. Three of Lord Horthram’s men and Captian Hollen were waiting for them. Without a word the girls were handed water skins, a knife and boots. Gella’s boots smelled horrid, but she only had her sandals and knew she would need the proper footwear as it seemed they were just going to walk away. Gella also saw that Captain Hollen was looking much more alert than usual, though he still had a bandage around his head and his eye was likewise covered. He passed Estrial a crossbow and a handful of bolts. One of the men from the valley also had a hooded lantern, he lead the way down the brook-side path. The dogs followed along.
As everyone else started heading down the path, Gella stopped and looked back. She wondered why the others were not coming as well. She knew a number of them had adjusted pretty well to being here, but she thought the majority of them wanted to leave. She turned as Captian Hollen approached, he made a gesture for her to follow and then put a finger across his lips. So she followed.
Hopefully they could send a force to rescue these people, but that seemed a distant concern. Especially as she thought about how far they would have to go to reach the closest town south of here.
There was that dwarven village though, Korumnda-Rhiss, Lord Horthram had dealing with them every year, though her father had rarely traded much there.
They had walked through the night and well into the morning. Gella’s feet were throbbing and her legs ached, Myr was whiny and Estrial was ghostly pale. She had sicked up a couple time during the march. The dogs were already asleep. Everyone was sprawled on the ground between some dulmak trees, except Captain Hollen who had wanted to scout the area. Gella could not help herself and cried for a while. Hood, laying beside her put a paw on her leg and regarded her silently.
Estrial asked, “You okay?”
Gella sobbed a deep breath and reached over and hugged her, “I will be. Did you kill them all?”
“No. Just Remder.”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure the bastard had the last laugh, I’m pregnant.”
“Oh! Goddess. So am I.”
“Ah yes, a fine pair of disgraced ladies we’ll be. If we make it home, do you want to run away to High Fort with me?