CHAPTER 18 - UNDERLORD

Slipping into the camp was easy.

There were lesser guards posted here. Draped with the cloak of one of the sentries they took out earlier, Fayte snuck in unnoticed from behind a tree. No one paid much attention to him. Hard men and women with ink on their skin only glanced at him. They walked around minding their own business. Some were focused on sharpening their axes and swords, running the whetstones along the edge of their weapons. Others were eating and talking loudly, tearing meat from bone with grease running down their chins. Then there were those torturing the slaves.

If only I had my sword. He had left it with Wilson and Rinmar, thinking a squire's sword might draw unwanted attention. Wilson wanted to rush in and rescue Amelia, saying that they did not have the time to scout, while Rinmar claimed he was trained in the art of stealth and so better suited for the task.

"One wrong move now and Amelia dies," he told Wilson harshly. "And I have yet to trust you, Saldarian."

Fayte could see the cages, a whole row of at least ten of them, with men, women, and children squeezed inside the black iron bars. There was a woman in one of those cages. He wasn't sure if the girl she held was her daughter, but both of them screamed when the slaver splashed a bucket of scalding water on them. He heard his sisters screaming for him then and his mother crying out in pain. Fayte wished he could help them but he forced himself to look away and headed off in another direction. No doubt he would have nightmares again later that night.

"Get out of the way!"

A large bald man shoved his way through the path, pushing people aside while yelling at them to get away. Behind him were three men draped in heavy linen robes with colours faded by the weather. Each of them wore a cowl that concealed their faces. In the middle was a fourth man riding atop a palfrey. He too was draped in a robe spun from linen, but a crimson sash wrapped around his neck set him apart from his men.

Weapons. He noticed a slight edge protruding against the left leg of each men. It was slight and hardly notable with all the shadows from the torches, but it was there and more obvious on the man riding the horse.

He followed them.

The bald man brought them deep into the camp towards the centre. At least I think it's the centre. It was difficult to tell where he was. There was a sort of untidy order to the placement of the tents that made it all the more disorienting. The tents were spaced evenly but none were pitched in a line. The tents came in different sizes with the smallest having enough room for two men to sleep in, with bedrolls laid out inside and nothing more, while the largest one which he now stood in front of looked big enough for twenty. This is larger than even father's office.

There were three entrances pitched to this tent. Two guards were posted at each entrance with a torch staked to the ground. Only place fitting for a Princess. There was no way to get in. Fayte stood beside a smaller tent with a woman sleeping inside. He lingered and watched.

The bald man stood beside the entrance and gestured for the party of four to enter. The robed man dismounted with his men behind him. They must be buyers. The two guards stopped them. One of the two placed his hand on his sabre and pointed at the leg of the man with the red sash. The guard's thick brows furrowed. Not a word was spoken.

"No weapons are allowed inside," the bald man said carefully.

None of the four robed men turned or even moved their heads. They just stood still, facing the tent as though waiting to be allowed passage in.

Then the two guards were struck to the ground.

Men around them leaped to action with swords and axes. The four guards at the other two entrances came over immediately. Fayte moved at once. The robed man with the red sash rose from the ground after tackling the two guards to the ground. His movement was so sudden. All he did was shove them down by the necks, and now the two guards lay motionless on the dirt. As Fayte made his way to one of the other entrance, he glanced and saw the remaining three robed men only turning their heads to look at the crowd of armed men surrounding them. Only trained fighters can remain so calm in such a situation. It did not matter to him if the four of them were butchered there, though he doubted that would happen. Fayte hurried into the tent.

Candle lamps were hung inside along the wooden frame that held up the tent. Fayte stuck close to the side and moved slowly. The way in was narrow and led to an open area. He moved where there were shadows and crouched low. Six other men were already inside mumbling to one another. All of them were dressed differently but commonly lavish, with the gold and silver threads in their clothes sparkling as they moved. Fayte never thought that nobles would purchase slaves personally. No, these are not nobles. They are here for a special reason.

That reason was bounded up and gagged, put up on display atop a raised platform.

Emily seemed unharmed for the most part, just dirty and covered with sweat. There was little ventilation inside here and the candles did little to help. The lavishly dressed men turned and watched as the man with the red sash entered. Fayte moved himself behind some crates and sacks.

"We do not permit weapons in here…"

Fayte froze midway. There was someone else in here who he could not see.

"My blade does not leave me," the man said, his voice muffled by his cowl. He made his way to the front of the group. "As the daggers and poisons do not leave these men around me."

The people around him shifted uneasily, only a few did not react.

Are these men are from the underworld? Fayte wondered, shifting about to get a better look. No, the Underlord would not send so many.

The unseen man had a deep laugh. "Fair enough."

"I see why we were so urgently summoned," someone in the group said, examining Emily like she was some item put up for sale. "How will this work? Such a valuable piece of merchandise. Surely you seek not only gold?"

Emily is no merchandise. His fist clenched.

"None of you will walk out of here with the Princess…" the unseen man said. "…yet."

"Explain yourself!" another demanded.

"I have little need for gold," the deep voice told them. The way his voice seemed to come from behind him made Fayte extremely uneasy. He kept glancing back at the shadow expecting to see someone. "What I seek for the Princess is… access."

The group was quiet, listening intently.

"Hylan was recently plague with a… curse. And my camp has need of a new location."

"You want access through the Northern Gate," said a woman Fayte had not noticed. The group of people parted and made way for a lady wrapped with silk shimmering with the blue and green hues of the ocean. She held a paper fan in her hand, while her hair was bundled up with a sapphire encrusted pin. Fayte could only see her back from where he was. "Bring the Princess. My country welcomes you."

Fayte held back a gasp.

"There is more than one country beyond the Northern Gate," a short and stocky man said, his beard thick and grey.

A few others nodded.

"Indeed…" said the unseen man. "And what about you, agent?"

One of them looked up. This man seemed to be the youngest of the group, brown wavy hair, built slim but muscular. The clothes he wore was just as dull as the man with the red sash, wearing a shirt and breeches instead of a robe.

"Leave the Princess here in Hylan," the guy referred to as agent said. "Name your country. The Underlord will see to the rest."

"Your Underlord can provide little in exchange," the lady said, fanning herself now. She turned to look at the agent. Her blue eyes confirmed what Fayte already knew. She is from the Eastern Kingdom. "Run along back to your underpassages, boy, before that pretty face of yours gets cut."

"The Underlord will also ensure the safety of all in this tent," the agent added. "Or if you prefer… they may be silenced as well."

The lady snapped her fan shut while the rest stepped away from him. Each one of them seemed to be reaching for something, be it in their sleeves or leg. The lady was already holding her weapon. "Know your place, boy. I do not take threats kindly."

"You are in the realm of Underlord Geralt," the agent declared. "Know your place, lady of the east."

"I am under the protection of Underlord Venson!" the lady shot back. "Insolent boys are fed burning coals in my country…"

The unseen man was laughing.

"All this talk of Underlords bores me. A choice between one Underlord from another seems little like a… choice. Why not we hear what Rondiar has to offer?"

Fayte bolted from his spot but something seized his leg and dragged him through the crates.

He dug his fingers into the ground but it did little to keep him from eating dirt, pulled right through the group before he was thrown against the platform. Emily made a noise and started squealing at him. Whatever seized him had released and left a burn on his ankle. Sorcery…

"A spy?" someone asked.

"What is the meaning of this?" another demanded.

"This…" the unseen man said, "is not one of mine. He snuck into my camp a while ago. Outside he has two friends awaiting his return."

How long has he been watching us?

"You do not know who you are dealing with… child."

"I know I'm dealing with a slaver," Fayte said defiantly. "One who will be hanged for kidnapping the Princess of Hylan."

A black mist shot out from behind him and coiled around his neck. It tightened and strangled him. Emily squealed and squirmed but there was nothing she could do. He tried to grasp at the mist but there was nothing tangible about it. Fayte groped at his neck but the mist only tightened its hold on him.

"Ah…" A second tendril of mist pulled out his father's seal. "Fayte of the noble Kaywin family… Is that not who you are? I have heard of the Princess's squire friend. Admirable… I must say. You have come a long way to save her."

"I would advise against harming this one," the Underlord's agent warned. "Frendon Kaywin is not one to be trifled with."

"That…" the unseen man said, "I agree."

The mist released him. Fayte made a note to thank his father if he managed to survive this.

"Let us waste no more time," the masked man said, his patience dwindling. "Here we can all give you what you desire. That is not the matter now."

The voice sniggered. "What then do you… propose?"

The man took a step forward from the group. "I propose lesser choices."

While the others in the group were busy being puzzled, Fayte saw the Underlord's agent frown and turn away immediately. He was gone the same moment the man drew a curved blade, with which he removed the heads of the two men behind him. At once the group began to reach for their weapons. The lady with blue eyes turned and fled as well. Smart. Those who stayed to fight only served to die. Not one of them was a match against the man. He slayed them all, his red sash soaking the blood of the men he slew, moving swiftly from one to another, slashing and slashing and slashing. Crimson death painted the sheets of the tent by the time he was done.

Fayte found himself frozen with fear. It was not the headless men that frightened him. No, it was the screams of his mother and sisters, the screams of the friends he had and the people who once lived in Zywedior. He heard them scream and cry, all of them, as he watched each and every one of these men fall under the Scygard's blade. A real Scygard… Fayte was shaking.

"Ah… such is the way of the Scygards, is it not?"

"We swore to touch no innocents," the Scygard said, flicking the blood off his blade with a swing before he sheathed it into his belt. His robe fell over the curved weapon and again, he was just the robed man with a red sash. "Not one of these men are innocent."

Innocent. The tremor in his hand ceased.

"My sisters were INNOCENT!" Fayte got to his feet and charged the Scygard madly. He knew at once that this was a mistake, that he would die now, but he could not stand for such lies. The Scygards murdered his family and each one of them was innocent. "INNOCENT!"

He saw a glimmer of gold in the Scygar's hand, but the blade was stolen from him by the black mist. Fayte was yanked back to the ground as well, slamming against the platform.

"Ah, ah, ah… this one is mine," the unseen man said. "He too has value."

"Very well." The Scygard folded his arms. "Now, the Princess."

"Yes… the Princess. She is yours if you can meet these… terms."

Fayte tried to search for a weapon. The Scygard was unarmed now, but the unseen man would get him before he could make any move. Emily was safe for now so he had no choice but to wait.

"The curse that plagues Hylan… Get rid of it."

"There is little that I can do about the demon," the Scygard said. "Rest assured, Hylan will be intact. A broken country is not worth invading."

To think Fayte almost trusted him. Rinmar will answer for this. Even Emily was taken aback by the Scygard's words. It pained him to see the confusion in her eyes, like she was trying to reason out an explanation for Rinmar's deceit, but now it was clear. He and his people control Ra'gelor… Everything he told me about his people, how he tried to make me believe that they were divided and torn by civil war. Fayte shook his head. Hylan is in more danger than we ever imagined.

"Interesting… then I see little need for my second term."

"Saldara embraces the need for servants," the Scygard told him. "All you need do is change your title, Torjun the Slavelord."

Torjun the Slavelord, the unseen man, laughed lowly.

"However…" the Scygard went on.

The air seemingly stilled and all seemed to quieten down. Fayte felt a chill as the discussion took a turn.

"I will also need each and every one of your men," he said.

For a while the unseen man was silent. Such a request was absurd. The deal was for Emily and only her. Fayte began to hope that the unseen man would kill the Scygard.

"That… I cannot allow."

Now the air began to feel stifling and increasingly warm. Fayte turned and met eyes with Emily. I need to get her out of here now. Get her out of the way before these two start fighting.

"I advise you, slaver, to accept my offer and surrender your men."

"Why?" Torjun said, and Fayte watched as the shadows inside the tent begin to creep towards the Scygard. "Is it because you have a horde of ghouls and animations around my camp?"

The Scygard folded his arms and stood firm without a word in response.

The shadows cannot get any closer to him.

"You do not want me for an enemy…"

"Saldara fears no measly slavelord," the Scygard announced. "Escape while you can."

Then the air became lighter. Inside, the tent had become brighter and a breeze swept in, bringing with it the screams of hundreds. Fayte got up, released from his bonds, and stood before the Scygard who had retrieved his weapon.

"You are but a child," the Scygard said. "Leave."

Fayte sucked in a breath. Behind him Emily squirmed and made noises, no doubt telling him to stay out of this. But when Fayte looked upon this Scygard, all he could see were the faces of his friends and his family. His two sisters and his mother, tears streaming down their eyes as they were butchered by the Scygard. He was never there, but every time I dream I watch them die. I watch helplessly as they die. His hands were shaking as he struggled with himself. Saldara does not want an alliance. It is a lie. Rinmar lied. So now… His breath came out shaking. Now, the people of Zywedior will be avenged!

Fayte charged at him.