Chapter 16: Headache

Virpan slowly opened her eyes, feeling as though a cold hammer was tapping against the side of her head. She stared up at the ceiling, through the thick smoky air. The room felt unbearably warm. Despite the numbness, she attempted to sit up, only to find that her hands were bound. A rush of fear flowed through her, and she began struggling against the bindings while looking around the small hut.

“Stop moving,” a deep voice commanded.

She fell still, lying back on the rough mat. Now feeling more frightened, Virpan carefully tilted her head towards the voice. A strange man hunched over a small fire, stirring the contents of a small pan. The man tapped a large spoon against the rim and walked over to her. He bore bizarre tattoos across his body, some even reaching his face. He was clad only in a skirt which was similarly decorated.

“Here,” he said, offering a spoonful of the smoking liquid.

“Are you serious?”

“Drink it; you took a nasty blow to the head.”

Hesitantly, Virpan opened her mouth and ingested the substance. The oily substance coated her mouth with the taste of burnt rotten fish. The man grabbed her chin and forced her to swallow. After several moments of gagging the numbness began subsiding. The man seemed satisfied, and pulled her upright. After swaying for a few moments, she turned and looked at the stranger.

“W-what do you have in store for us? Where is Howngthirr?”

“I have nothing. The village chief does.”

With that he shoved her out the door. The moment she emerged a pair of guards grabbed her and started down the road. Shabby huts stood on either side as they made their way toward a large manor house in the centre of town. The place was similarly in shambles, primitive scaffolding preventing a cracked wall from collapsing.

A large crowd was kneeling before the porch, several armed men patrolling the perimeter. Virpan was forced into place amongst them. On the far side of the group she spotted Howngthirr, though he didn’t seem to notice her.

A man in ornate robes exited the manor. He approached the crowd, flanked by several heavy guards, and began looking over the prisoners. A cold chill pricked down Virpan’s spine when the first girl was pulled from the crowd and taken aside. Each step the chief took towards her added to her growing dread.

Several girls leaned down and tried to hide their faces. Knowing this would only attract more attention, Virpan stared directly at the back of the man in front of her. Even as he walked to within inches of her she did not move her head. Two more woman were pulled aside, but the man passed by her without a second glance. The chief returned to the manor house with the three girls, passing a new man carrying a long staff.

“Rise!”

Everyone remaining rose to their feet. Virpan leaned out and watched the last girl vanish into the house, wondering which of them was about to have it worse.

“March!”

The crowd was herded down a road and into the forest. The spear wielding guards patrolled along the column of prisoners. In the confusion Virpan pushed her way through the people and came up behind Howngthirr.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” She hissed.

“Ugh, wha-Virpan? I feared that you were, were lost.”

“I’m fine, just a bit of a headache.”

“Thank goodness,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Ok, how are we getting out of here.”

“Hadn’t thought that far.”

“The first thing is to cut off our bonds.”

“How?”

“My teeth.”

With no better plan, Virpan held up her bound hands. Howngthirr set to work, slowly chewing through her bindings. An hour passed as they trudged along the twisting roadway. The strange trees and alien sounds intimidated Virpan. The thought of navigating the unfamiliar jungle filled her with dread.

A guard shouted and the line came to an abrupt stop, Howngthirr’s head smacking into her in the back. The guards began inspecting the area. Out of the corner of her eye Virpan spotted a few bushes rustling, knowing immediately what animal was hiding there. She held her breath, but nothing came of it. Soon the guards returned to their positions.

After trudging for another few miles the tree line broke. They arrived on the outskirts of a small town. The place appeared better maintained than the raider’s village, though this was of little comfort to the prisoners. They were marched down the main street and into the centre of town. A large stage stood over what had once been the central fountain.

Men emerged from the houses, giving the raiders weary glances, and walked up to the stage. The group of prisoners was pulled apart and lined in tens. The first group was marched up onto the stage were the townsfolk cut their clothes off and began inspecting them from head to toe. Several wagons rolled into town, flanked by men in rusty Mahlepren armor.

Virpan began frantically pulling on her bound hands, hoping Howngthirr had managed to weaken them sufficiently. Before her the auction was already getting underway. Several well dressed men moved amongst the naked prisoners inspecting them like cattle. Two more wagons arrived from the opposite direction, a number of town elders greeting their guests.

Panic set in. Virpan looked back and forth for any sign of an opening. Then she stopped. There were eleven prisoners in her line. She counted again, certain that they had been separated by tens. Carefully she leaned back and looked down the line, noticing that two had slipped their bonds. Something in the house behind them caught her eye.

She turned completely around and spotted a pair of eyes peeking around the windowsill. The moment they made contact the eyes vanished. Virpan gulped, knowing that something was about to happen. A raider approached their line with a well dressed man in tow. He began inspecting them, taking a keen interest in Virpan.

After nodding to the guard the whole line was marched up onto the stage. Dread settled over her. At the edge of the crowd she spotted Howngthirr, who was hiding his eyes. A dusty looking man approached her with a knife, Virpan hoping against hope that the strangers would act soon. He kneeled down behind her, a similar person arriving for each person in line.

The blade pierced her shirt, carefully avoiding her skin. She closed her eyes, gripping her hands tightly together. There was a pause. The man withdrew the knife without any further cutting.  Hesitantly Virpan opened her eyes.

“Hey!” one of the, guards called, rushing over to Howngthirr’s line. “Get back in your position!”

Out of nowhere Howngthirr produced a hammer and smashed the man across his face. The slaver recoiled from the hit, grabbing his bleeding mouth. In a split second the other guards rushed towards him, the crowd of buyers looking on in bemusement. Inexplicably the entire line of prisoners dropped to the ground. Confused, the guards slowed their approach.

From the opposite side of the village square at least a dozen men barring red arm bands appeared in the windows of various buildings. They brandished long, metal objects Virpan did not recognize. A series of a loud shattering noises erupted from their objects. Half of the guards fell, blood pouring from circular wounds.

The entire mob descended into panic. Just feet away the unbound prisoners produced daggers and killed the guards on the stage. Another volley rang out from the long objects, puffs of smoke emerging from the windows. Just as the surviving men were starting towards line of strangers, six people from Howngthirr’s line sprang up, having procured objects of their own, and shot into the raider’s turned backs.

Their apparent rescuers emerged from their hiding places, now blasting the well dressed nobles where they stood. Seizing her chance, Virpan ran from the stage, spotting one at the bottom of the stairs. When she reached him, the stranger immediately cut off her bindings before rushing up the way she had come. The fearless man ran into the middle of the stage. He pulled the long object off his shoulder and shot the man who had been leading the auction.

The strangers now took over the square entirely, shepherding the freed prisoners into the wagons they had appropriated. In awe of the sight Virpan ignored her better instincts and approached the man on stage. He was tall and muscular, his dark hair cropped close to his head.

“Hello comrade,” he said brightly, turning to Virpan. “This is great victory for us all.”

“Indeed, uh, comrade. Who are you again?”

“My name is Ha’olewe,” he replied, “and you are?”

“Virpan.”

“Will you accompany us back to our village and accept our hospitality, Virpan?”

“Sure, I think that’s the best thing I’ve heard all day.”

With some trepidation, Virpan followed the strange man back to the ground, hoping she wasn’t making a huge mistake.

-#-

“You’re alright,” Howngthirr called as she descended the stairs. “I thought for a second there, uh, never mind.”

“You seem to be in a good mood.”

“Why shouldn’t I be; these folks freed everyone and even let me help.”

“I saw that.”

“Sorry, I think the wagons are full,” Ha’olewe said, interrupting. “You’ll have to walk.”

“That’s quite alright,” Virpan assured him.

“Good, then let’s get moving.”

The ragged column got underway. Virpan followed hesitantly and took her place amongst them. Though they seemed cheery enough, she was still suspicious of their sudden rescue and with the weapons they wielded. They marched through the forest down another trail. It was late in the afternoon before the trees began to thin.

A large field came into view, a village situated in its centre. From their distance, the settlement appeared to be similar to the raider village, adding to her suspicions. Though, she noticed, many of the freed captives jumped down from the wagons and broke into a run at the sight of it, looks of glee on their faces. As they crossed over a small bridge, Virpan at last began to relax.

The people harvesting the fields looked happy and wore decent clothing. By the time they reached the edge of the town all of the former captives had dispersed. She slowed and looked back at Howngthirr, both unsure of how to proceed. The men who had rescued them continued towards the central manor, soon vanishing from sight.

“Now what?” Howngthirr asked.

“Get someone to guide us; I haven’t a clue where we are.”

The village was a far cry from the last one she had been to. The houses were clean and well kept. She knew this because none of them seemed to have doors. Only a few had a thin cloth drawn across the entrance.

They hurried to the central manor, hoping to speak with whoever was in charge. The men who had rescued them were lounging around on the porch cleaning their odd weapons. Ha’olewe spotted her and beckoned her to approach. Hesitantly she advanced up the stairs, noticing the manor house also lacked doors.

“Welcome to our community,” he said brightly, offing his hand, “I hope those barbarians did not harm you Virpan and, sorry, what’s your name?”

“I’m Howngthirr,” she replied.

“Glad to help the both of you,” he said, shaking both their hands.

“Thank you for rescuing us,” she said smiling.

“It was nothing at all,” Ha’olewe replied. “And of course it was not just me who rescued you.”

“It means a great deal to us,” Virpan said.

“I’m glad to help. We all are.”

“Listen, we need to get back to the coast,” Howngthirr insisted. “Who’s in charge around here?”

“I beg your pardon?” Ha’olewe asked, looking confused.

“You know, who’s the leader?” Howngthirr said, walking up to him. “Who gives the orders?”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” he replied, flummoxed.

“So who does?”

“Does what?”

“Who leads everyone?” Howngthirr asked exasperated. “You know, who tells you what to do?”

“No one. My people were in danger; I knew what to do, so did everyone here.”

“Interesting,” Virpan said, admiring him.  “Would you be able to lead us to the coast, then?”

“I could,” he replied, “but is getting rather late.”

“Where do we stay then?” Howngthirr asked.

“Wherever there is room.”

“Perfect, that sounds, perfect,” he replied, looking back over the town. “Actually, I’m a bit hungry. Where can we get food?”

“The granary, just down the street,” Ha’olewe said pointing.

“Perhaps you could accompany us?” Virpan asked hopefully.

He nodded and started down the road. They followed after him and soon arrived at a large square. Long tables where set around the square, large awnings shading most of the area. On one side was an open building overflowing with wonderful aromas. There were piles of bread, stacks of fruit, and hearty meat soup. Virpan hesitantly poked at one of the loaves, feeling quite famished. Behind a long counter in the back was a young woman jarring fresh fruit jam. She looked over at Virpan.

“New here, aren’t you?” she asked, a friendly smile across her face. “Take whatever looks the most appetizing.”

“Thank you,” Virpan said, deciding to just go along with it. “This looks lovely.”

“You’re most certainly welcome,” she said “It feels good knowing people enjoy my cooking.”

With her arms full of food, she and Howngthirr made their way to one of the long tables. Both wondered what sort of place they had stumbled upon. The locals gave them friendly looks, some chatting between themselves while stealing glances at them. Feeling out of place, Virpan was relieved when their guide of sorts plopped down next to them.

“What is this place?” Virpan asked, taking a piece of bread.

“It is our community,” Ha’olewe replied.

“Well, it’s pretty nice,” she said trailing off.

“Ahem. If you had not intervened, where were we going to be taken?” Howngthirr inquired, uncertain if he wished to know the answer.

“To the mines, probably. There are five iron mines on the island, they control two and our brethren mine another two.”

“The fifth?”

“Mahlapren,” he said, disgust in his voice.

“You sound quite resentful.”

“They wish to enslave us, lash us into serfdom like the old days. But now we have the Powder of the West.”

“Those weapons you were using?” Virpan guessed.

“Indeed, our muskets can pierce armor; their knights give our freed lands a wide berth.”

“What is it like, having no ruler?” Howngthirr asked.

“I’ve never had one,” he said, shrugging, “From the stories of the older people, though, it doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

“You people are quite different,” Howngthirr said, leaning back. “This is good food, by the way.”

“Glad you enjoyed it,” he said, “Will you be staying with us?”

“You mean permanently?” Virpan asked.

“Yes, anyone who wishes my stay.”

“I made a promise, and I have to keep it,” she said quietly, “I must retrieve something of grave importance, to help my people.”

“Of course,” he said nodded, “I understand completely.”

“It’s getting late,” she said, looking towards the horizon, “where should we stay for the night?”

“Where would you like to stay?”

“Search me,” Howngthirr said, “I just got here.”

“My sister has a spare bed,” he said thoughtfully, “Hongther could stay there. Perhaps Virpan could stay at my home?”

“Perfect,” Virpan said, straightening up.

Feeling drained after such a long day, Virpan followed after Ha’olewe, hoping to get a good night’s sleep. He led them through the maze of buildings, knowing the way by heart. Soon they arrived before a hut that looked very different from the score of others they had just passed. Inside was a woman of perhaps twenty, a small baby cradled in her arms. The moment she saw Ha’olewe her face lit up. The two embraced before he waved to the new comers.

“Wiwemua, this is Hongther. He will be staying here tonight. Honekele, this is my sister, Wiwemua.”

“Pleased to meet you,” they said simultaneously, bringing each other to the brink of laughter.

“You look like a strong young man,” Wiwemua said, smiling.

“Why, yes,” Howngthirr replied, flexing his barely existent muscles, “I am.”

“Perhaps you could help me repair this beam?”

“Couldn’t your husband do that?” Howngthirr asked, a bit deflated.

“Husband?”

“Forget I said anything; just show me to the shelf.”

Nearly laughing herself, Virpan turned and left the two alone for their repairs. She and Ha’olewe walked a pair of doors down before he stepped into the dwelling. Apparently at their destination, Virpan ducked in just as a child dashed out to greet him. The two embraced, and he lifted her up.

“Is she your sister?” Howngthirr asked.

“My daughter,” he replied.

“Oh, she must be four at least,” Virpan said quietly. “So, this is your place?”

He nodded, sweeping his arm in a circle. A table sat next to the entrance, with a bit of paper and inkwell atop it. A small bed sat in one corner, obviously meant for the young girl. In a second area was a large hammock strung from pole to pole. He flopped down onto it, clearly tired form the day’s events. Virpan looked around, seeing small carvings, a shelf with a pair of books and an ornate glass sphere, some spare clothes tucked over a pole.

“Where am I going to sleep?” she asked awkwardly.

“I thought that perhaps you could sleep with me, in the hammock,” he said offhandedly.

“Run that by me again,” Virpan said crossing her arms.

“Huh, is that an issue? Well, I could clear off the desk and put a blanket on that. I’ve slept on it before, so I’m certain it could hold your weight.”

“W-we just met,” Virpan said, backing up. “I, uh, do you people just sleep with each other?”

“Yes, is there something wrong with that?”

“That seems, odd to me,” she replied, biting her lip.

“It’s your choice,” he said shrugging, “just thought I’d make the offer.”

“I’m not that kind of girl!”

“What do you mean?”

“Ah, I mean, people who do that, where I come from, uh,” she said, unsure what she was talking about. “Let’s just say it’s uncommon and leave it at that.”

“That is fine; I shall arrange the table for you.”

“Thank you, Ha’olewe,” She said as he prepared her a bed of sorts. After all the events of the day, Virpan surrendered to sleep the moment her head hit the soft pillow, slipping into dreams.

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