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Gifts-Hider Part 2
Copyright © 2001
Sothra wasn't the southernmost port of Camron. That honor belonged to Pinchon almost a hundred miles to the south. But it was the largest, and the richest. Also the Barony of Stark was only thirty miles away. Two days by wagon, or on foot or a short day on a fast horse.
It was a strange sight that greeted the citizens of Sothra, in the early morning, when two wagon loads of naked children, moved along the street headed for the city gates, surrounded by a platoon of soldiers and five men and women dressed in the uniform of King's Messengers.
Tana was riding beside the lead wagon when her nephew, called out to her, "Tana, we've lost Hider." While Kinon no longer wore the slave collar he had become accustomed to over the last six months, he was still naked. He refused to put on any clothes until the other children were also clothed, and Tana liked him more because of it.
Tana moved up beside the wagon, and took a quick look at the children there. With Kinon there was a total of eleven. Hider had divided them up in a mixture of older and younger children. The other wagon was divided the same way. However in this wagon there should have been twelve children. Hider indeed was missing. She looked at Tres who shrugged his shoulders. The eldest of the children at just twelve, he was one of the few who actually knew when his birthday was.
"Okay, Tres, where did he go." she demanded.
He shrugged his shoulders, then grinned, "We was passing through one of the City Squares when he began staring at a couple of men, who were watching us real intent. He told us that he would find us, and then went into Concealment, and jumped off the wagon, I saw a little puff of dust when he hit the street."
"Damn, why would he do that, he's a complete stranger here." she demanded.
Tres shrugged for the third time, and said with complete confidence, "Dunno, he does what he thinks is right. But don’t worry, he said he'd find us, and he will."
"Do all of you trust him as much as you do, Tres?" she asked.
He nibbled on his lower lip for a moment, then nodded, "Yus. All of us. I bin with the band since I was five and I was seven when he showed up, he was about the same age I'd been, five or so. We didn't have no leaders in those days. Oh some of the older kids pretended to act like leaders, but they was all bullies. The band, it changed a lot in those days, kids would be found dead, or worse, would just disappear."
"But then one day the City Guard and the Hunters showed up in our area, and the older kids panicked and abandoned the rest of us. With the likes of us the Hunters killed first, and were never concerned whether we were Magic Users or not. Hider wasn't the oldest, but he took over, and began giving the orders, and we got out of that scrape without losing anyone."
"The older kids they came back, and tried to take over again, we knew we had a real leader and we just ignored them. A couple of them tried to take over physically as they had in the past. We didn't want them back and half a dozen us swarmed over each of them and beat them into the ground, and they slunk away with their tails between their legs. Since Hider became leader only one of us kids died. We hadn't arranged it like it was when you found us. One of the kids, Shena, went off with a noble, she was only nine, and he killed her."
"Oh, was Hider angry, and though some of us were two, three, four years older then him, we didn't dare to go near him, he was that mad. Then a couple of days later Hider disappeared for a two full days, and when he showed up again, he was like a cat who had eaten his fill. He never said nothing, but we heard in the streets that, the noble who killed Shena, was found in his bedroom, throat slit, ear to ear."
"After that Hider made sure that none of us went with nobody he hadn't checked out personally with his Empathic ability, or someone we had been with before. No one's died since. Also when we were low on food, and there wasn't enough to go around, Hider divided it. He started with the youngest, and he always took his share last, and if there wasn't enough to go round he didn't eat. So yus, we trust him total."
While Tana had overall command, since she had the rank, she trusted and depended on the sergeant, who was in his mid-forties and had been soldiering since his late teens. Stationed in this area for the last ten years or so, he was more up on local information than she was, since she had spent most of the same period, first at the Academy at Camara and then as a King's Messenger. She'd only returned six months before when Kinon had disappeared.
It was her investigation, with the help of the sergeant and her team that had determined that Kinon hadn't been kidnapped by Yersine's people. She pulled to the side of the road and let the wagons pass and then joined the sergeant, who was at the head of the following contingent of troops.
"Tarn," she said to the sergeant, a little ruefully, but like Tres not alarmed, she had great confidence in Hider's ability to take care of himself, "we've lost one of our children."
"Aye, that would be Hider, their leader. I saw him looking intently at someone. I turned away and when I turned back I couldn't see him anymore. Didn't realize he'd left us, but don't worry. He's the kind that can survive anywhere." he said consolingly.
"Actually I'm not worried about him." she admitted, "I just thought we should stop early. Around two or so would be a good time, I think. That'll let Hider catch up to us, and also give the children a chance to play some games and get rid of some of the excess energy that they've gathered over the last few days aboard ship. Otherwise we'll never get them to sleep tonight. Now I'm not a very maternal person, I have to admit that I'm not particularly worried about their sleep. But if they don't sleep, I have the awful, awful feeling that we won't sleep either."
The sergeant spat to the side, "We've got mostly veteran soldiers." he grinned at her, "they could sleep anytime, anywhere. For street children these kids are surprisingly well behaved, but I saw on the ship that they were fair curious about everything. I don't know if my men would be safe if these kids were awake and my men were asleep. So I'm certainly in favor of the idea of tiring them out, before bedtime comes."
Taking a look at the wagon a little in front of her, she lowered her voice. "You realize that many of these children were prostitutes, don't you sarge. They won't change their ways overnight, and maybe not at all. How do you feel about your soldiers ending up sharing their beds.
"We always get camp followers when we go to war. I long since made it a policy not to interfere with what the men get up to as long as they weren't on duty, or who they took to their bed. But while most of them are veterans I only know a few of them. I don't know them well enough to know if they can all be trusted." the sergeant said, not at all concerned by the subject matter.
"Don't worry, they can all be trusted. Hider vetted all of them over the last few days, on the ship. He picked out those who like boys, and those who like girls and those who have no sexual interest in children at all, but just like kids. Since the younger kids are accustomed to being close to other warm bodies in the night I think you'll find some of the latter men will end up with a couple of the younger ones each. They'll end up with rather crowded bedrolls, I'm afraid.
"Since you're one of the latter sarge, don't be surprised if you end up with a couple of small bodies in your bedroll before morning. Since I know you'll be setting up a guard rotation, the kids will shift beds when the guards change."
"Also tell your men not to treat Kinon any different from the other children. Even more than they, his sexuality has been awakened, they only shared a bed occasionally, he was a slaveboy, he's shared one every night for almost the last six months. From what Kinon says, Considus was very sexually active, and sex occurred every night and quite often during the day as well. I've been in contact, with my brother via messenger birds, he provided for that purpose. He was somewhat saddened that Kinon's sexuality has been awakened so early, but he agrees with me that there is no going back, and he will not try to prevent Kinon from engaging in sexual activity. Like Hider with his band, he just wants to make sure that his sexual partners can be trusted not to hurt him."
Meanwhile, Hider was following the two men who had watched the wagons go through the square. The fact that they had been so intent on the wagon, and especially one particular boy on that wagon, Kinon who at the time had been sitting beside the driver on the driver's seat, had alarmed him, and awakened his instincts. While Kinon wasn't one of his band, after their time on the ship, he had come to regard the younger boy, if not as one of his band, at least as part of his responsibility.
He began to creep up on them. They hadn't spoken since they left the square, but they might begin at any time, and he wanted to hear what they had to say. But before they began to talk they stopped at an open air inn. Since it was so early, the server who came out of the inn was a boy in his middle teens. Normally the server would be a girl or a woman.
He took their order and went into the inn to get it and returned quickly with a bottle of wine and two glasses. It wasn't until the boy had gone back inside that the younger one began to talk. He reminded Hider of Tana and as soon as he began to talk, he realized why. In a low but very angry voice, he said, "You were hired to get rid my cousin, Kinon, not to sell him into slavery." He paused and then in a threatening voice, "You had better make it right or I'll make sure that your Guildmaster knows about your failure."
The man with him, a dangerous looking man, with a scar down the left side of his face, said in a low deadly, voice, "Krin, do not try to threaten me. The Guildmaster already knows about this debacle. He demands loyalty and truth. He does not punish just on a whim. The man I chose had always been reliable in the past. I had no way to know that he would double cross me. The Guildmaster took that into account, he gave me the task of making sure that our unreliable agent would never have the opportunity to betray us again. The man and his two adult sons, have long since ended up floating in the Tenve harbor.
"However we did not dare to go after the boy. The Prince is as crooked as they come and is the leader of the underworld in Scart. As a courtesy I had to check in with him. He gave me permission to deal with the traitors, but told us we were not to touch the boy. He expected Considus to do something he could not ignore and to fall out of favor. A rival named Marrko would then, have taken care of Considus, and since he had no heirs the Prince would have inherited the land, and the boy would have ended up back on the auction block. If he was unlucky the boy might have survived a week in Marrko's care."
Hider made a mental note of the fact that the Prince was the leader of Scart's underworld.
"Why is the boy so important? I would have thought that Stark's sister would be just as important. After all, this southern province is one of the few, where woman have equal rights of inheritance. I would have thought you would have wanted to get her out of the way as well."
Krin snorted, "That's what my mother always kept saying when she was still alive. She was the first born, and under the provinces inheritance laws she should have inherited. However beginning about two hundred years ago there were four Baronesses in a row. The first three almost ruined Stark, and the last brought it back to prosperity. She changed the law in Stark, so that females couldn't inherit unless they were the only members of the family left alive, and went to the King to get it ratified."
"He probably would have agreed, even if it had been a man, asking for the change, he didn't have a very good opinion of women, but since it was a woman asking for the change, he passed it at once. So if the boy dies, I become heir and if Stark dies I become Baron." Krin gloated.
"All right, we did make a deal, and now that the boy is back in our reach we will deal with him as you wanted in the first place. The wagons should take two days to make it to Stark, they have to pass by a small village, called Orson's Hole, which is just off the main road. And a hole it is, but it's an ideal place for an ambush. We've got fifty men, mostly former mercenaries to go against twenty-eight, and with advantage of surprise we should be able to take them out without too much of a problem."
"As I said we'll abide by our deal, but this is costing the Guildmaster, and he said that he would consider favorable opportunities in the Stark Barony, once it's in your hands, a nice reward." Krin just waved his hand in agreement and dismissal.
When Hider reached the spot where the wagons had camped, it was about ten, and he was surprised that it wasn't farther from Sothra. He could have just used Concealment and gone into the camp, but not wanting to get the guards in any trouble, very carefully hid behind a tree, where no weapons could strike him accidentally. He was impressed with the guard. With his Empathy he could feel that the man was alert, and he was facing away from the camp, so his night vision wouldn't be ruined by the firelight.
The boy coughed a couple of times to get the guard's attention, and he realized that he had been wise to put a tree between himself and the guard, as the man's short sword, came out of its sheath with the speed of a striking snake.
Speaking in a normal voice the guard asked, "Who's there?"
"It's me. Hider." said the boy.
"We're glad to have you back, the sarge and Tana missed your company." the guard said dryly. "Did they ever miss your company. We stopped early, because Tana thought that the your group could use a little exercise to get rid of the extra energy they've been gathering while aboard ship, or they’d never get to sleep. Well they wore themselves out finally, but not before they wore out most of the adults."
Hider giggled, picturing the scene, "It's all that good food we got on the ship. I can feel you don't agree with me about the food, but after what we were used to eating, to us it was great."
"Go on in. You should find a second guard in closer to the fire, with the King's Messengers, there's enough for eight guards per shift, so the sarge established, four in an outer picket and another four in an inner picket." the guard said, as he re sheathed his sword.
As he had said, Hider came upon a second guard much closer to the fire, but he too was alert and not looking at the fire, but it was much brighter, and he could see who approached and he only put his hand on the hilt of his sword, rather than drawing it.
He informed Hider, "The sarge and Tana, stayed up to wait for you. They also saved you something to eat, though how they managed to keep some out, when your mob descended on the food I don't know."
Hider giggled again, saying, "You're just lucky that you managed to get some of it."
The man gave him a little pat on the rump as Hider passed by him. The boy smiled over his shoulder, then made his way to the fire, noticing as he did so that all of the bedrolls he passed had at least one additional small body.
He sat down on a log, beside Tana who handed him some food and a mug of milk. He concentrated on the food until it was gone, and he tolerated and maybe secretly enjoyed it, when Tana wiped his face, mainly to get rid of his milk moustache. The sergeant looked at Tana, saying dryly, "And you said you don't have any maternal instincts."
She smiled at him and shrugged, "Well, maybe just a little. And I must admit that the Kinon I've gotten to know over the last few days, is much different from the picture that Vell's letters gave of him."
"A spoiled brat was he?" asked the sergeant.
"Very spoiled." she lowered her voice, "I hate to think how close he came to a horrible death, but slavery has changed him for the better. I think it will, in the long run, make him a much better Baron." Turning to Hider, she asked, "Now what have you been up to, little one."
Hider gave a quick recap of all he had learned, and he watched their faces tighten as he mentioned the ambush. The sergeant for the first time addressed Tana formally, "I hate to say it M'Lady, but we simply don't have enough men. We'll have to go back to Sothra, in the morning and head back to Stark with a larger company."
"I agree, unfortunately, that'll mean they'll be able to try again in the future." she said, biting her lip.
"Sorry, M'Lady, but with the children in my care I wouldn't go up against them unless I was forced to, even if the odds were one to one."
Hider asked, "How far is this Orson's Hole from Stark."
Tana answered, "It's about six miles from Stark itself and three miles from the Barony border, which means it's outside of my brother's jurisdiction. My brother is a High Justice but most of Orson's inhabitants manage to stay just on the right side of the law, at least publicly, and nobody's ever been able to pin anything on the village as a whole, that will stick."
"How many men could Stark raise?" Hider inquired.
"With the war winding down in the southeast, and Stark's guard and some of those serving as mercenaries returning we can raise about two hundred experienced, fighting men." said Tana.
The sergeant gave low whistle, "As much as that, Tana. It's too bad we weren't on that side of Orson's Hole."
Hider smiled in the light of the fire, "No, we can't get on that side, but what if Stark's men came up from behind them once they were in position. It would be impossible to justify being there. They would have no choice but to fight."
The sergeant looked at Hider speculatively, "You've got an idea?"
With a child's fascination for fire, Hider had taken a branch and stirred up the flames. "They're not likely to have more than lookouts out for tonight, and when they realize that we stopped so early the first day, they're not going to expect us until the day after tomorrow, sometime in the morning. Tana has a good horse, and it's not that far for a fast horse. I'm good enough at Concealment that I can hide a horse for brief periods. And with my Empathy I should be able to feel their lookouts before they see us."
He looked at them, "There's no guarantee that we won't get caught, but I think it would need a lot of bad luck for that to happen. However in Tenve, I heard a lot of sailors talk, and it seems that bad luck turns up, just when you don't need it. Spend an extra day here, the kids wouldn't mind another day of play. If we don't show up back here, twenty-four hours from say ten o'clock tomorrow morning, go back to Sothra."
Hider looked at Tana, a determined look on his face, and she gave him a nod of agreement. "I agree with Hider on this one, sergeant. We catch them in ambush and with Hider's testimony, we've got my cousin. He won't be alive to try again."
Tana produced a pair of her spare short trousers for Hider. He felt and looked ridiculous, since they were miles too big, but with the belt cinched tight, they stayed on. It would give his rump and certain other areas some protection, and since they hung down his thighs they would even give his legs a little protection. He was still going to be one sore little boy by the end of this ride.
Tana mounted and the sergeant put Hider up behind her. He grasped her with a death's grip around the waist. "Now hold on tight, Hider," she gasped out, pretending to be out of breath."
He got her point, and loosened his grip a little. Put not much, this was his first time on a horse, and he felt very far off of the ground. Tana gave the sergeant a brief wave. Hider ignored him, he was too intent on hanging on to worry about pleasantries.
They had been riding for about three hours and a full moon had come up, shedding some light on the night, and Hider was feeling a little more comfortable about being on a horse, and had loosened his grip somewhat. His bottom and legs were scraped raw despite the protection of the short trousers. He could feel a very angry someone up ahead. He gave Tana a nudge in the back, and when she looked over her shoulder at him, he yelled, "Slow down, we're coming up on the first lookout. He's really pissed, or I wouldn't be able to feel him this far."
She slowed down and he concentrated on invoking Concealment, and quickly the horse and its riders disappeared. Tana looked down somewhat disconcerted, like Hider having his first ride on a horse, this was her first time being in Concealment.
Padded booties, which were standard equipment for King's Messengers had been placed on the horses hooves, and moving slowly he made almost no noise, and they passed by the first lookout without any trouble. It took a little longer for Hider to feel the second lookout, because he was much calmer, but they got by him just as successfully. A third bypassed successfully, and when they had traveled about a mile and hadn't come across anymore lookouts, Hider released his Concealment.
He was limp with tiredness, while he could have maintained Concealment for a couple of more miles, he would have been completely exhausted. She stopped for a moment and pulled the boy around in front of her, and he leant back against her gratefully, quickly falling asleep.
He woke up when he heard her yell, "Sergeant of the Guard!" He could see that the gate itself was well lit, with a couple of lanterns, and he could just make out a couple of archers on the wall, with drawn bows. He was impressed by their alertness. According to what Tana had told him, the Castle hadn't been attacked in over two hundred years, yet they were taking no chances.
The portcullis was up, but it could have come thundering down, with a swift slash of a rope, by the sergeant of the guard who came forward, sheathing his sword, one of his men drawing his sword and taking his place.
The sergeant looked around, and after making sure that Tana and Hider were alone, he yelled, "Take it easy, it's M'Lady Tana."
Taking hold of the horses bridle, he led the horse through the gate, and turning it toward the stable, he took the reins from Tana and tied the horse. "Here, take Hider." Tana said, and handed the boy down. The sergeant took him and set him on his feet, and had to hold him up as his legs began to crumple under him. Hider began to mutter under his breath.
Tana, accustomed to long rides, swung down easily from the saddle. She stretched, and asked the sergeant, "What's he saying?"
The sergeant, bent down so he could hear what Hider was saying. In fascination, he continued to listen for almost a minute, only to be jerked up, when Tana asked impatiently,
"Well, Quin, what's he saying?"
The sergeant straightened with a jerk, "M'Lady, I've known you since you were a little girl, and I wouldn't feel right repeating what he was saying in front of you. I can tell you that I learned several new words and phrases I've never heard before." he said of Hider's tirade, with great respect. He released the boy, ready to catch him if he lost his balance again, but Hider had gotten his land legs again, and was quite steady.
Hider unbuckled his belt, and let the short trousers, slide down his legs, stepping out of them. With a groan he began rubbing his bum and thighs vigorously. He glared at the horse venomously, "If this hadn't been my idea, I'd find a crossbow and shoot him."
Tana carefully picked him up around the waist and stared into his large green eyes. Choking back her laughter, "I'm sorry Hider, really, horseback riding can be enjoyable, but starting off having to make a trip of thirty miles in a few hours is not the way to begin riding.
He nodded graciously, "All right, I forgive your beast this time, but tell him he better not let it happen again. Or else." He turned his eyes on the sergeant, suddenly serious. "Do you have anybody with good night vision among your men?"
The sergeant perplexed, nodded, "We've got a couple of Elves, and of course they have good night sight."
Hider looked back at Tana, "Something I just thought of. If I was planning an ambush on the wagons, I'd have the castle watched as well. Probably by a couple of kids right now, and then someone more responsible the closer the time gets, just to make sure that they don't suddenly get squeezed by a counter-ambush like we planned."
The Elves were sent out but they didn't find anyone, as they reported to Baron Stark, who had already been awake and the sergeant, Hider and Tana. He grunted, "Careless of them." and the three others nodded with agreement. He thought it over for, "Well, I don't think they'll stay careless." looking at the Elves, he said, "Pick three others with good night sight, though it's unlikely that they would send lookouts this late in the morning, it's more likely they'll place lookouts either later in the day or after it gets dark, so be prepared to stay a long time."
The Elves left passing the Captain of the Guard, and one of his two lieutenants, who had just been awakened. The other lieutenant was ill, and Quin was taking his place at the moment.
They had heard his last comment to the Elves, and the Captain said, "That gives us a chance to gather the men together, M'Lord. Hope the ambushers include half the men from Orson, that'll give us a reason to finally shut the village down, and get rid of three-quarters of the crimes committed in this area.
Stark nodded, "I agree, but right now the important thing is Kinon and the other children. I don't like it, but Tana is right, if we don't take the opportunity to take out my cousin, now, then Kinon and I are still in danger. While our lives aren't that important, in the overall scheme of things, I would hate to think of what would happen to the Barony if Krin got a hold of it."
Hider was up with the a dozen forward soldiers. All foresters and archers, they were to take out any guards, and allow the following soldiers to get close, There was the same number on the other side of the road. They weren't aware that Hider was with them, as he was in Concealment. There were four guards and the foresters managed to catch them off guard and take them alive. Two of the foresters moved back as messengers to summon the main body forward.
Since there were no shouts from the opposite side of the road, obviously the foresters on that side had been as successful.
Hider drifted forward, a stout branch in his hand. A city boy, he shouldn't have been able to move as silently in the woods as he did in the city, but by being very careful he managed it. He hoped the one he was looking for would be here and hopefully on this side of the road. He moved silently among the ambushers, and when he reached the sixth one, he looked at him with satisfaction. The scar faced man who had been talking to Krin in Sothra.
After failing the Guildmaster once, even though it wasn't his fault, he would want to make sure this time, or his death would be as inevitable as the setting sun. The man looked around uneasily but seeing nothing wrong he settled down with the crossbow again.
As patient as a spider waiting for its prey, and as still, Hider waited, and waited, and then the horn sounding the attack rang out and he bounded forward. If the scar-faced man had been wearing his helmet as he should have, the blow that Hider aimed at the back of his head wouldn't have been possible. But because he wasn't, the blow took him just in the right spot, taking his consciousness instantly. Taking the rope which he had wrapped around his bare waist, Hider tied the man's arms behind his back, and then pulling his legs up he tied them together.
Just in case he might need it, he took the cross-bow that the man had intended to used and abandoned Concealment. Anybody coming on them was likely to be a Stark soldier, and indeed, the man who sudden appear was Sergeant Quin. He looked quizzically at Hider holding the heavy crossbow and the trussed up man. Hider said simply, "We want this one alive. He was the one Krin was talking to in Sothra. I just thought an extra witness wouldn't hurt."
It was a week since Krin and the scar-faced man had been executed. Unfortunately only a couple of the men captured had been from Orson, so the hope they'd be able to deal with the village once and for all had not materialized.
The keep of the castle was a crowded place. The notice that Hider's band was up for adoption, and like a girl being married would come with a dowry, had attracted a lot of people from Baron Stark's lands.
Tana was looking down from her room and she was puzzled when she noticed that children would approach a couple and then look over to the side. Sometimes they stayed and other times they moved on.
Curious, she headed down to the courtyard. She saw Hider leaning back against the wall, and when a child would look at him he would nod or shake his head. She joined him. He answered her unspoken question, "All of Baron Stark's people are aware of what my children have been, and the ones that came, well they think they're the liberal ones. Not all them are as liberal as they like to think. With the smaller ones it doesn't matter, but the bigger ones have been having sexual encounters for years, they need to go with those that will accept that part of them, even though they're still only children.
"This will be the last time they will be my children. Oh, they'll always be my friends, but soon they will be part of families, and they will be their children." Surprisingly Tana realized that there was no sadness in Hider's voice, he was genuinely happy for the children who had been member's of his band.
She watched with him over the next hour as the children were paired up with the appropriate families. Then Hider turned to her, "Well, how would you like to get a leave of absence and go help topple a Prince. Your brother has promised me any money I might need and he's provided six men. He gave some of the mercenaries a choice, hard labor or go into danger as my men. More than a dozen offered themselves. With my Empathy I was able to choose half a dozen who actually meant it. All we need are a few Magic Users and hopefully a Lesser or Great Mage"
She looked down into those bright green eyes, and heard herself say, "I'll see what I can arrange with Prince Tamen."
Gifts-Hider Part 3
Copyright © 2001
Tana looked down at the man lying on the ground and gave him a prod with her toe. "This is a Great Mage?"
Hider, unperturbed by the condition the man was in, replied, "So, I've been told. I sorta, thought that if we had any chance to get a Great Mage, this is the type of condition he'd be in."
He squatted down beside the man, and took a small vial out of his belt pouch, "I asked the Healer before I left for this. She was reluctant at first to give it to me, but when I told it would probably be for a Great Mage she was much more willing, and even enhanced it a bit." He pulled the stopper with his teeth.
He took a hold of the man's nose so he would have to breath through his mouth, and poured the contents of the vial into his mouth. Taking hold of his chin he pushed the man's mouth closed, and the man was forced to swallow.
He stood up and restoppered the vial, and moved backwards. Calmly he said, "I'd give him plenty of room, Tana, if you think he's a mess now, it's nothing to what he's going to be like once that stuff starts to work."
Their guards, two armed men, two of the six who'd had their sentence commuted when they agreed to work for Hider. One of them said dryly, "He may only be a boy, but I think he's going to be an interesting person to work for. If that stuff is what I think it is, he has some unusual knowledge for a youngun. I learned about it only after I'd been soldiering for a while."
The Great Mage suddenly jerked to a sitting position, well for a brief second, then he rolled on his side vomiting his guts out, on the dirt of the alleyway.
Hider and Tana watched with interest for several minutes until he seemingly was empty. Tana asked, "What was in that stuff?" she asked with interest.
Hider admitted, "I don't know, but the Healer knew what I was talking about when I described it to her," he smiled wickedly. "She said, 'It will interact with the alcohol in his system, and cause him to regurgitate it, and anything else he has in his stomach at the time.' and as I said when she found I was going to use it on an alcoholic Great Mage, she enhanced it somewhat. Normally it only lasts for a couple of days, but she put enough of her magic into it so that it'll last for about a week."
One of the guards nudged the other, as Tana said, "Oh my, he's going to unhappy with you, Hider, when he sobers up. My mama raised me to be daring, but not suicidal. You won't mind facing him alone will you?" she asks, only half in jest.
Hider spoke over his shoulder, "I think he's as empty as he's going to get, you can pick him up and follow us."
The two soldiers looked wryly at each other, then did as they were told and followed the other two, "It'll be best if he wakes up in the bathhouse and all he sees is a naked servant boy. He's probably less likely to start throwing around Mind-blasts, even if he's able to with the type of headache he's going have."
When Vanro woke up he was sitting up to his waist in a bathhouse tub full of hot water. He looked around, having a little trouble focusing his eyes, and he was feeling mean. The only person in sight was a small naked boy, obviously one of the bathhouse servants.
He yelled, "Boy, go get me a drink!"
Instead the boy came over and knelt by the tub, hands on his thighs, looking at the man with bright green eyes. He said, a little smile on his face, "I wouldn't advise it. You've been given a concentrated and enhanced dose of Ferone."
Van winced, and started swearing under his breath. When the boy cocked his head in interest, he asked, "How long?"
"About a week," the boy answered and Van could hear the suppressed humor in his voice.
"Who's responsible for this?" Van snarled out angrily.
"Well, I tell lots of lies, but in this case, I'll tell you the truth. That would be me." looking straight at Van, merriment dancing in his eyes.
Van raised his right hand, but the boy didn't even flinch, "You don't have the reputation of a child beater even when you're at your worst."
Van dropped his hand back into the tub, "Yeah, but I'm sure thinking about spanking one right now."
Hider bowed his head, "My bum is at your disposal." he said wickedly and with very evident lewdness.
Feeling he could talk to this boy for hours and still come out the loser, Van asked plaintively, "Why me?"
The boy said, "You're still half drunk, right now, I'll tell you in the morning, when you're completely sober, and you can turn me down then."
He stood up and Van couldn't resist. He gave him a swat on the bum, and just got a smile back. "I'll get the real servants, now that you're completely awake."
He stopped at the door and looked back at Van, "The girl is about fifteen, the boy is about my age. They're both prostitutes, if you wish either or both, just put it on my tab."
Van woke up in the morning feeling pretty good. He knew it wouldn't last very long. Looking around he saw Hider curled up in a chair, wearing a pair of sky blue short trousers and barefooted.
He coughed and Hider was awake instantly, sitting up in the chair and crossing his legs under him. He looked at Van with those disconcerting green eyes, brushing a lock of red hair out of his eyes. He began to speak immediately, in a conversational tone. "I've lived in Scart, actually the capital Tenve, for all of my life except for the last two months. I intend to go back, and topple the Prince, I have six mercenaries, eight high Magic Users, one of who is a Scrambler, all of whose ancestors, like yours, came from Scart and who want to go back, one King's Messenger on leave, and for the last three weeks I've been looking for a Mage to go with us. I've been turned down eight times."
Uncrossing his legs, he stood up, and came over to the washstand which was close to the bed. He dropped three gold pieces on the top. "For your time. Also the room is paid up until the Ferone wears off in about a week. There's some new clothes in the wardrobe. When you sensibly decide to say no, there's no need to tell me, just leave, I'm an Empath and while I can't read you I can tell you're here, so I'll know when you leave, and I'll go on looking. I'll leave now before your aches and pains start. I'm right next door."
He went to the door, Van gaping at his back. Furious, he yelled, "What if I decide to go with you?"
The boy turned and smiled at him, "Oh, I'm sure you won't, the people I've talked to have said you were many things, but stupid wasn't one of them." and he went out of the door and closed it gently behind him.
Van was furious, he realized the little bastard was manipulating him, but he was furious anyway. "Must have been talking to my sister." he muttered. But he forgot the boy as the aches and pains came, as he began to dry out. At least he was spared the delirium that would have affected someone trying to go cold turkey, the Ferone would allow him to avoid that.
Food and water was delivered, periodically. He drank the water and ignored the food, and it was removed. On the fourth day he began to get hungry and ate some of the fruit provided. By the sixth day, he was eating meat and vegetables.
The longer Hider stayed away the madder Van got,
Finally he got so furious, that he stalked to his door and to the next room. Pushing open the door he said, to Hider who was sitting on the bed, "All right, I'll go."
"Yes, your sister figured you'd decide that." then Hider smiled coldly, "Just to give you a little incentive to stay sober." he nodded in back of Van and the man turned and gaped at his sister, Denna. He heard Hider say from behind him, "Denna, is our Scrambler. She told me that she would rather see you dead than the way you've been. So I've given her the job of watching you. If you get drunk and endanger the rest I told her to slip a knife between your ribs." For a little boy, his voice was chilling and absolutely believable.
Without a word Van slipped back out of the room, to his own. Hider grimaced. Denna said with respect, "You're a very good liar, since you didn't tell me anything of the sort."
Hider shrugged, "It'll take us a while to get to Scart. Here in Pinchon we're almost fifty miles from the border, then it's another five hundred miles to Scart. Since we'll be going by ship, and there will be plenty to drink, I intend in fact to make sure it's easily available to him, I figure that if he's going to fall, it'll be during that trip. If so we just leave him on board."
Hider was glad that Van hadn't fallen. He couldn't help but like the man. Naked, as he had been for almost all of the life he could remember, except for the last two months, in his hand he was carrying a cloth with fifty coppers, each in their individual pockets and rolled up so that they would not clink. It was well after dark and he was heading for his bands former hideout. He didn't really expect it to be unoccupied, it was too good a place to hide, and in fact he wanted it to be occupied. It would be by a younger band of children, the older ones would have considered it beneath them.
He was close enough that he could feel them now. He was somewhat disappointed. None were awake. They were careless and had posted no lookouts. Well he intended to give them one shocking wakeup. Maybe that would teach them to set guards in the future.
He slipped into the dilapidated building, and saw the log that many of his band had used for a seat still in the same position. He put down the cloth and picking up a piece of wood he began to pound on the log, and it resounded in the building, though he knew from experience that it didn't make much noise outside. At least some of their survival instincts existed, by the time he had hit the log the third time, all of the children were awake and on their feet.
He had good night vision and in the moonlight could see all of them quite well. Most of them he knew. This band was both older and at the same time younger than his band had been. None of the faces peering at him was older than ten, and none was younger than six.
He dropped the piece of wood on the ground, and stood hands on hips looking at them. He shook his, head, "You're dumb, and careless. You should have at least two lookouts out. Don't think you'd be safe from the Hunters just because you don't have any Magic Users. If they found this hideout, they'd have gone through it using their swords. There's half a dozen ways out of this place. With lookouts most of you could escape, without and all of you would have died."
"Raf, you go to the east, Tarvan you go west. If either of you sees trouble coming, give a warning using the song of the Nightwitch. I've heard you both use it in the past." he said.
Neither of the boys chosen protested. In his age group Hider was top dog, in Tenve. Most of these children would have liked to join his band, but he had reluctantly held the number at twenty, knowing that he simply couldn't care for more, though his advise was always available. On the rare occasions that his band had more than they could eat and the food would spoil, he had shared with as many as he could.
He looked at the ones who were left, and counted them. All told there was seventeen with the two detached as sentries. Twelve boys and five girls, not an unusual ratio. Girls were more likely to be killed outright when they were born, so there were less of them to be abandoned.
He looked at one of the boy's, who at ten and a half was probably the oldest. "Do you have any real leaders, Jer?"
"No." the boy said ruefully, "us older ones try to decide what to do, but it's hard."
"Do you mind, if I take over? It could be dangerous to have me around." Hider said.
"You're welcome to it Hider, as for danger, we all know that we could be walking on a street and someone could run us through for the fun of it and nothing would be done." said Jer.
"Oh, I might not be able to stop you from being run through, but I assure you that something would be done about it." Hider said, in a cold, silksoft and very scary voice. "The man who killed Shena, thought he could get away with it. It took me a night and a half, but I proved that he couldn't."
They all knew what had happened to Shena and the nobleman who had killed her, but this was the first time that Hider had admitted that he had killed the nobleman, though many of the slum children who knew him, had thought it was him. Those who didn't know him scoffed at such a preposterous idea.
"I got my band out, they're all in Camron now, and they've all got families. I vowed when I left that when I came back Scart would need a new Prince, and that's what I'm here for." He took the coin holder and untied the bow holding it closed, and rolled it open. "There's fifty copper pieces here. I could just as easily have brought fifty gold, or five hundred gold. I intend to raise a fighting force, and I plan to start with the street children who have been hurt so much by the Prince and his greed."
"To start I have to get rid of the Hunters, and some of the Underworld leaders. I need kids to find and watch them. You'll be the start, but I'll need a lot more. I have access to hair dye, so I can go out with you during daylight hours to locate the ones I want, without being recognized. I doubt if anyone would expect to see Hider with brown hair, so they'll just assume that I look like Hider."
"I'll be back tomorrow night, with some adults, one of who is a Great Mage. He'll be able to put protection on your minds so that the Hunters can't feel you watching them. Don't go looking for them till then. And don't do any stealing. Take six coppers, no more and divide it among three or more of you and go out for some food. Having a few coppers won't surprise anyone, they'll just think you've stolen it. If someone from one of the older teenage bands tries to take the money, give it do them, I'll deal with that later as well."
Hider looked up at the sky, "Replace Raf and Tarvan in about three hours, that should be fine for tonight. And when I get back tomorrow night, have lookouts out. Anytime during the day that there are a lot of you here, have lookouts out then as well. All of the adults have belts and I swear if I catch you without lookouts, I'll have them use them on the half dozen oldest." he looked at each of the oldest and they could tell he meant it.
Hider had been organizing the street children for the last month, for the first two weeks he had been gathering those he felt he could trust, and for the last two they had been watching the Hunters and others.
Now he was ready to take the first step, by taking out some of the Hunters. Most of them were basically cowards, using the advantage of numbers to overawe those they were after. He intended to hit them hard, in one of the places they considered theirs. The Roaring Lion Inn, was not of the best class of inns in the city, but it was highly rated, and the Hunters had pretty well made it their own. Oh, there were the half a dozen foreign mercenaries in the corner who apparently had no idea who the Hunters were and showed no fear. There were the usual servants, but for a change, there were no prostitutes present, not that it worried the Hunters, they were easy to find.
It was hard to tell how many Hunters there were at any given moment, but it varied between twenty-five and thirty, and they were about to become guests in a slaughterhouse. He dropped the Concealment, which had been covering him and Van, and nodded at Denna, and she used her talent for the first time in Tenve. A Scrambler, was exactly what the name suggested. For those with certain talents, mainly Mind-speech and Empathy not expecting it, the blast that she let loose would literally scramble their brains for a few seconds and leave them disorientated for a longer period of time.
Hider and Van stood up, as did the four Magic Users who had checked into the inn earlier. Calmly and with absolutely no pity, knowing what these men were and what they had done in the past, he picked one of the lurching figures and fired the crossbow, which had been cut down for him by one of the mercenaries. Six crossbow bolts downed six of the Hunters, and then the mercenaries were among them.
The four men and two women, were good people who had gotten trapped, in a bad situation by the Guildmaster of the Thieves Guild in Sothra, and they also were merciless. They cut down the helpless Hunters like wheat in a harvest. Within two minutes there wasn't a Hunter left alive.
Hider, a new crossbow bolt loaded, came down the stairs calmly, though he was feeling sick inside. Van who had helped him maintain the Concealment by using Compulsion, followed him. Unlike Hider, he felt nothing for those they had just slaughtered. Like the mercenaries, he and the other Magic Users had heard the horror stories about the Hunters, from children they had come to know and like.
Other then Hider's people, the only ones left standing were the bartender and five serving maids. Hider directed his speech at them, "If I were you I'd be long gone before the other Hunters find out what happened. Some of them are going to want revenge, and this place is the most convenient place to start. If it's not a pile of ashes by the morning, I'll be very surprised."
He looked at the bartender/owner who was wringing his hands apparent distress. "Oh, please, Swane, the rumors are that you've been piling up the loot for years. You've just been waiting for the right moment to leave. Well this is the right moment."
He looked at the serving maids, feeling more pity for them, they really had little choice in where they worked. He waved at the dead Hunters, "Take what you can carry and don't get greedy, a purse filled with silvers will last you a long time, and showing up with a large one filled with gold, would be just begging for someone to take it away from you."
They were all sensible women and could see what he meant, a purse with silvers in it could last them for months. If they took one with a dozen golds, the only way they could spend it would to go to a money changer, and none of them were to be trusted, since they all worked for the underworld and directly for Marrko, and though they didn't know it, indirectly for the Prince."
Hider looked at the mercenary who had been assigned to count the bodies, a question in his eyes. "Twenty-seven, Hider."
He grinned, his brief bout of pity for the Hunters gone. "They're going to be seriously pissed, tomorrow and then they're going to get very frightened."
He turned and walked toward the door, stopping briefly when he reached it. Getting no warning of danger, from the lookouts he went out, followed by his people.
Two weeks and several ambushes later, Hunters were very scarce in Tenve. The only ones remaining were those who served as Prince Diam's personal guards. Hider was waiting to receive a guest, and here he was, escorted by Van and Tana. He was a big man starting to run to fat, and he had his hands tied behind his back, a hood over his head.
Van helped him sit down on the log and then pulled the hood off of his head. Hider was sitting on one of the rocks that had been brought in to use as seats. He grinned and waved his hand around, "Welcome, to our humble abode." he said eyes crinkling with humor. The man didn't speak just looked around, there were more than thirty children in sight and ten others acting as lookouts, though he wasn't aware of that. They were in small groups usually surrounding one of the adults who were teaching them how to read and write.
The man began blustering, "Who the hell are you. Don't think you can get away with kidnapping the Commander of the City Guard and get away with it, you little slum rat."
Hider cocked his head, and smiled broadly. There was no bluster in that shrewd mind, Hider could feel the alertness and sharpness, though he couldn't read his mind. He was fishing for information, and Hider intended to give him some.
"My name is Hider and we've got away with several things. Let's see. Oh, yes, there was the slaughter at the Roaring Lion Inn. We really thought the Hunters would burn down the inn, when they didn't, we realized that Swane must have had a silent partner, Marrko or the Prince perhaps. And then there was that incident on Bow Street, where the wagon lost its casks of wine. Crushed several Hunters I hear, and then someone actually had the gall to shoot the Hunters that went to the rescue. And then… Well you get the idea."
The man smiled with genuine humor, and asked, "How old are you? Ten?"
Hider admitted, "I think so, but I'm not totally sure, I might be a year older or younger, but ten's a nice number."
The man speculated out loud, "Are you speaking for someone?" he looked at the boy closely, but Hider just smiled, "No, you're the leader. When you started talking everybody looked to you, to see if what you were saying concerned them. Once they knew it didn't, they went back to doing what they had been doing."
Hider smiled and looked at Van, "Untie him will you, Van." The Great Mage asked, "Are you sure?"
"Yes, he's too interested to try to get away." he giggled, "and I'm sorry Commander, I can't really see you trying to run. You simply have too much bulk to try." he said a little louder, "Denna," and she lifted up the cocked crossbow that she held in her hand. "Not that I intend to underestimate you, I saw you the day you took on Marrko's man Bull. He outweighed you by what, fifty, sixty pounds. I assure you I cheered just as much as everyone else when you broke his back."
The Commander said, "Marrko didn't smile." and he grinned, showing yellowing teeth.
"Yes, I noticed, that. For some reason I thought, SOMEDAY.... I had no reason why that word ever came into my head, but now it's SOMEDAY, Commander." Hider said.
"SOMEDAY? What exactly do you have in mind?" the Commander asked.
"Marrko's coming back to town tomorrow, and the first thing he does after he settles in at his home is to go to see the Prince. I assume that's to bring him his cut." Hider smiled.
"His cut?" asked the Commander, and he was no longer grinning, his face had gone hard. Hider nodded with satisfaction.
"Oh, didn't you know Commander? The Prince is the head of the underworld in Scart, he gets a cut of everything." Hider answered seriously.
"Don't be ridiculous!" the Commander stated.
Hider didn't answer, he just disappeared into Concealment, then he moved over behind the Commander and then reappeared. "I assure you that I heard it from a very reliable source."
The Commander snapped his head around to stare at the boy. Hider moved around in front of him, and stood with his hands clasped behind his back. "That's how I got my name, Commander, and I'm very good at it. I heard about the Prince, from a man who had no reason to make it up. He didn't know I was there. He was simply talking to a client, about a murder the man had paid to have committed. This man hired a man and his two sons to do the actual murder, but they decided to double cross him, and they brought the boy here, and he was sold to Considus."
"The man told his client that, as the Prince was the head of the underworld here, he had to get his permission to kill the man and his sons, and to get the boy back. Well he got the permission to kill the kidnappers and they ended up in the harbor, but he was denied permission to either take the boy or kill him."
The Commander looked at the boy intently, staring into those bright green eyes. They did not flinch away from his and he could see the truth in them. He admitted it out loud. "Truth!" he said heavily. "What do you have in mind?"
"I think Scart needs a new, more honest Prince don't you, one who doesn't object to Magic Users." the boy asked.
The man driving Marrko's carriage around front, felt it was acting a little sluggish. Perhaps the journey in from the country had done some damage. After he brought Marrko home from the Palace he'd take it to the carriage maker, so he could have a look at it. He didn't care that it would be late in the evening and he would have to get him up. He relished the power that being Marrko's driver occasionally gave him.
Hider and Van hanging onto the back, hidden by the boy's ability, were just glad that the journey to the Palace wasn't a long one. The dropped off as it slowed down just in front of the gate, and Van began to use Compulsion on anyone close to the gate, as a quarter of a mile away, a double file of the City Guard were escorting a dozen prisoners toward the Palace Gates. Not an unusual sight, but the fact that the prisoners were fully armed, was, but Van was Compelling the guards not to see the weapons.
They had been astonished when they examined the Palace, right after they arrived, and found it wasn't Warded. Astonished, but quite happy to take advantage of the mistake. Despite the feelings of the Prince and his father had about Magic Users, they had expected them to be smart enough to have Wards installed. That would have prevented Hider from using his gift of Concealment to get Van close enough to use Compulsion.
Once the attack started, they weren't as ruthless as they had been with the Hunters. These were simply guards doing their jobs, and as long as there was no danger of them warning anyone, they were quite happy to give them quarter. They were totally in control of the walls within twenty minutes, the guards either dead or put to sleep using a Healer's potion.
Getting into the Great Hall had been as easy as taking the walls. Using the City Guard, they had just marched up to the door, saying they had been summoned, and a few judicious smacks on the head had taken care of the guards. They opened the door and found themselves in the antechamber, with the second door leading into the Great Hall itself and the stairs leading up to the balconies overlooking the Great Hall, and the private rooms off of the balconies.
Carrying crossbows, half of the thirty City Guards went up each stairway. Those downstairs waited with some trepidation for ten minutes but no outcries came from either side. Hider nodded and the Guard Commander flung open the doors and they began to walk toward the head table, which was the only one occupied. Also except for the ten Hunters there were no other guards. There were very few people at all, and the only servants were mutes, the Prince not wanting to advertise the fact that he was the head of the underworld.
The Hunters began to move forward, and four of them were cut down by crossbow bolts from the balconies. The rest halted. Hider out in front of the others said calmly, "You have three seconds to put down your weapons or the rest of you will also be shot. One, two," The boy didn't have to complete his count, the Hunters throwing down their weapons as fast as they could.
The mercenaries moved forward to tie them up and take their weapons. The others approached the High Table. They were intent on the two men sitting there, Marrko and Prince Diam, and the were startled when the woman sitting beside Diam said in a musical voice, "Hello, Hider, I've been waiting for you."
All heads snapped to look at her, into those bright green eyes, so much like Hider's. Diam looked at Hider then at the woman, and almost screamed, "I told you to get rid of the little bastard, Rashin!!!"
"Now, Diam, if you were a little brighter you would have realized that I wouldn't harm my own son." she said reprovingly. "But then again I did count on your stupidity, and I was so glad that in that one thing, you were totally reliable."
He stared at Hider, and for a moment it looked like he was going to launch himself across the table at the boy, but a couple of Hider's mercenaries drew their swords and moved in front of the boy, drawing back again when the Prince settled back in his chair. Tana, beside Hider, asked, "What was that all about?"
Rashin turned slightly to look at her, "Tana, my dear, there was a prophesy made when Hider, I'm sorry dear, I never dared give you a name, in case Diam realized that I cared about you, though I did have some pet names for you in my mind, but you've earned the name you have. But I got off the track, about the prophesy, I don't know the exact wording, but it said that a green eyed son would be his downfall. I thought it was nonsense, obviously I underestimated the Gods in this case."
"When Hider was five, Diam really started to take notice of him. One of my abilities is that of Mind-speech, it like Hider's ability at Concealment are much more powerful than would be expected from our other abilities, but I was able to put the suggestion in Diam's mind that he should tell me to get rid of the boy. When he did, I used my gift to remove Hider's memories of the Palace and sent him onto the streets, persuading Diam that I killed him. It was dangerous for Hider, but it was far less dangerous than letting Diam know he was still alive. I also can See at a distance, so I've been able to watch Hider since he's been on the streets."
Hider said dryly, "I don't get the feeling that you're very maternal, but even if you had been, you couldn't have fled with me, because that too would have revealed that I was still alive, and as Master of the Underworld here, he would have a long reach."
She nodded approvingly, "That is the case, but I'm glad Hider, that you realize that I'm not made to be a mother, I thought that might hurt you, and I didn't want to do that."
"No, I didn't come here looking for a mother. I came to replace a rotten Prince. I'm afraid the first thing the new Prince should do is shorten his predecessor by a head, and certainly Marrko by the same amount."
Tana was looking back at the port of Tenve, falling behind the ship that had originally taken them to Scart, feeling very satisfied though a little lonely. The Councilors that Hider had a big hand in choosing, had perhaps not surprisingly chosen his mother as their new Princess, and being very practical, she had indeed shortened her husband and Marrko by a head. The Commander of the Guard had been assigned as the new Minister of Justice and with the information that Hider and his informants could give him, the underworld in Tenve, and Scart was going to take a long time to recover.
Already the lot of the street children in Scart had improved, while still poor, they had a place to go every day to get food, and schools had been set up. The teenage bands weren't quite as happy. Those with abilities had been apprenticed, however most of them had ended up in the army, where they would start off as cadets.
All of the Magic Users, including Van had stayed behind, and as she looked around she speculated, wondered how soon the Princess would have a consort. She and Van had seemed to hit it off right from the beginning. She could she two of Hider's mercenaries close to the bow of the ship. She turned to look behind her and then realized what she had seen.
She turned, and began yelling, "All right, Hider, I know you're here. Come on out. Now."
She jumped when the boy spoke from just behind her, "You don't have to yell, Tana, I'm right here."
She whirled around and stared down at him. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming with us."
"Mother and I agreed to disagree. She and I both thought we'd get along better if we had a few hundred miles between us. Now how did you know I was here?" Hider asked.
She gathered him into a bear hug and gave him a good squeeze. He squealed a little at her tight grip, but it still felt good. She set him down, then waved at the mercenaries, "They've come to adore you. Where you go, they go. As soon as I realized they were aboard, I knew you were, as well."
"Ah, I didn't come alone," Hider said sheepishly.
She rolled her eyes, "How many."
"Same as last time, twenty, but these want to get an education and then come back. The schools that mother has started up will help, but just in case she gets bored with the idea, I wanted to have a backup plan ready."