The Battle Market
Bree passed through the enormous, bronze set of double doors and into the Battle Market. It was a massive, circular building with high ceilings and polished, tile floors. Bree let out a quiet gasp of awe. She hadn’t seen a building this grand since she left her father’s home in Taldor. Too bad it stunk like dogs and blood.
Before her the stretched long a torchlit passage which opened up into some kind of common room. To her left was a large wooden door, and to her right was a flight of stairs which curved with the contours of the building.
The goblin, Jank, led Santon and Kelestair down the passageway ahead. Santon talked amicably with Jank, seemingly without worry. For his part, Jank seemed thrilled with the attention. Kelestair walked silently behind them, tense and alert. He reminded her of a desert snake, coiled and ready to strike.
Bree eyed the door and stairwell, but decided to follow her comrades. She couldn’t leave them to face what lay ahead alone – whatever it was!
She walked down the passageway cautiously. It opened up into a cavernous, circular room. It was well-lit and noisy. Market stalls lined the perimeter of half of the room while a popular looking bar took up another quarter. In the center of the room was a raised stage surrounded by curved benches. Milling about the room was at least thirty people. Most of them were gnolls, but a sizable amount were bugbears or orcs. A good number of humans were in sight as well: merchants, mercenaries and slaves. They paid little attention to her.
Jank led Santon and Kelestair up, onto the stage. Bree followed them. The floor of the stage was wet – slick with blood and gore. She frowned as her mind caught up with her senses.
The room fell silent.
Oh, gods. What had they gotten themselves into?
Jank waved his wand and bowed, breaking the ominous quiet with his ridiculous jingling bells. Bree grimaced at the sound and grit her teeth.
“Attention, Kulldis tribe! Attention Kelmarane!” Jank yelled with a flourish. “Jank of the jingles-lots-bells and fancy-clothes, door keeper of -“
“Enough!” a voice boomed from above.
Jank shrank, and clutched his head with his hands. His legs began to shake in his bell-covered green boots. “Y-y-es, Master! Jank just do as told!”
Bree frowned. Whoever it was had scared the grammar right out of Jank. She looked up to find an elaborate balcony with a trio of thrones. In one sat a large gnoll with a strange looking pair of morningstars attached by a chain. Ugruk, presumably. In another sat Undrella with a sly smile plastered on her hideous face. The traitorous bitch! In the third – the largest of the thrones – sat a massive man at least seven paces tall. He was all rippling muscles and scar tissue. He wore black and bronze metal armour and held a huge axe clutched in his hands. His shaved head bore an elaborate tattoo of a clawed creature with insect-like wings.
“I said enough!” the man bellowed.
Jank nodded and simpered off of the stage.
“I am Kardswann, Mouth of the Carrion King, Chieftain of the Kulldis Tribe and Master of this village. Tell me, what business brings you to Kelmarane?”
Bree opened her eyes to the auras around her and then shut them in pain. The evil in this room was overwhelming! She swooned in place. They needed to get out of here!
“Why you do, Kardswann, my good man!” Santon replied.
The room erupted into murmurs.
Kardswann laughed once, without mirth. The room fell silent. “And now that you have found me, human, what would you do? Speak truthfully, and I might be merciful.”
Bree opened her eyes. Kardswann smirked cruelly down at her.
Santon smiled. “I, Santon Synger, of Katapesh, challenge you to a duel to the death for control of the Kulldis!”
Bree’s jaw dropped. The fool!
The room erupted into shouts and yips. Kardswann clenched his jaw tightly. Beside him, Undrella patted his arm. She whispered something to him, which made him tense.
“Enough!” he shouted. He threw Undrella’s hands off of him. “I tire of your disruption. It is time this battle stage is put to use.” He raised both of his arms into the air. “Honoured guests! I offer you five hundred pieces of gold for each of the strangers corpses!”
A few laughs erupted from the room. Some of the humans and orcs shuffled and made to move, but not a single gnolls stirred.
“You stole leadership by strength of arms, Kardswann. Are you so afraid of me, that you will not defend your claim?”
Kardswann frowned. “I fear no mortal.”
“Apparently, you do.”
A few yips could be heard from the crowd. One of the gnolls spoke. Then another. Soon there was a chorus of growls and barks. Bree had no idea what the gnolls were saying, but she could tell Kardswann didn’t like it.
Ugruk barked down a response at the gnolls, but he was shouted down by the crowd.
“I think the tribe has spoken, Kardswann,” Santon said with a crooked grin.
Kardswann rose to his feet. “I accept your challenge, mortal,” he replied through clenched teeth. “Though not to the death.”
“Afraid to die?” Santon asked.
A cruel smile sliced its way across Kardswann’s face. “Another has claim on your souls and your secrets. I count the moments until I introduce you.”
Bree’s brow creased with worry, but Santon seemed uninterested in Kardswann’s claims. Instead, he turned his back on Kardswann and motioned to Bree and Kelestair.
“Are you ready?” he asked calmly.
Bree raised a hand and smacked him in the face. “You’re going to get yourself killed!”
Santon felt his red cheek. “It’s hard to tell you care.”
Bree narrowed her eyes angrily. Was this all a game to him? Did he really think he could take on Kardswann alone?
“You see the woman in the back?” he asked. “Wearing the green robes?”
Bree scanned the room. The woman was a bronze beauty. She wore a scimitar belted at her hip, and watched the stage tensely. No less than eight men circled around her. Her guards, most likely. Bree glared at Santon.
“You’re an idiot. Focus on living. You can woo her later.”
Santon frowned. “Listen, Bree. If I die, I need you to get her out of here. Whatever it takes. Do you understand?”
Bree furrowed her brow. What did it matter to him if some woman stayed here or not?
“Do you understand?”
Bree nodded. “Yes.” She didn’t.
“Enough.” Kelestair cut in. “He comes.”
Santon nodded. Kelestair clapped Santon on the back as if they were old friends.
“Sestorious lesahownem,” Kelestair intoned quietly. A slight pulsing came from his hand. Beneath the skin, Santon’s veins and muscles bulged.
Bree quirked up an eyebrow.
“Kestral hest moones,” Kelestair finished. Another slight pulse came out of his hand and Santon straightened.
He turned to Kardswann. As he moved his every muscle rippled. He looked vibrant, strong, healthy, confident – What had Kelestair done to him?
“Bidding your friends goodbye?” Kardswann boomed.
Santon smiled. “Jealous?” he asked.
Kardswann frowned slightly, and growled. Bree and Kelestair backed up off the stage, and into the stands. Bree scanned the crowd for the woman she was supposed to kidnap. She found her halfway across the room, arguing with her guards and gesturing at the stage. She turned and made to walk towards the stage, but one of her guards grabbed her by the arm.
Bree frowned. What was going on?
Behind her she heard Kardswann speak, though all traces of anger had gone from his voice. “We know where the key-holder is,” he said. He sounded calm. Almost… emotionless. “We will have them soon. Soon. So soon.”
Bree quirked an eyebrow.
“Lucky you,” Santon said as he drew his broadsword. “I’m here for a key-holder of my own, you know. But that’s neither here, nor there. Are you ready to die?”
Kardswann made no response. He simply stood there. His eyes were voids. Empty. Devoid of consciousness. And then they weren’t. They were brown and fierce and angry. Kardswann let out a vicious cry and raised his axe high with both hands. He charged forward, screaming at the top of his lungs.
Santon backed up, a bit surprised, before smiling widely. He dashed forwards, swinging his broadsword. Kardswann twisted his axe, blocking Santon’s blow. Santon pressed downwards with his blade. Every muscle in his body flexed and tensed. Kardswann pushed back with his axe. Slowly, impossibly, Santon pushed his sword and the axe closer to Kardswann. Sweat beaded up on Kardswann’s brow. Santon smiled.
Gorged on whatever magic Kelestair had pumped into him, Santon seemed invincible. Bree nodded her thanks to Kelestair and then turned back to the crowd to find the woman.
She was ten paces away. Two of her guards held her by the arms while another punched her in the stomach. The woman struggled against them. A third joined in, grabbing her by the arms and hauling her backwards. One of her sleeves ripped off from the force.
A large slave brand covered the woman’s arm. It was a relatively new brand, no more than a year old. Likely much fresher judging by the fight left in the woman. The woman struggled against her captors, straining to reach the stage. Bree moved forward and then paused, realization dawning upon her. She looked back at the stage where Santon fought Kardswann and then back at the woman.
Santon was the spoiled son of a successful merchant. He had left behind a life of luxury, crossed a desert, and signed on for an impossible mission in a long-lost, backwater town. And for what? He had said it was for the promise of future trading contracts and investments, or some such nonsense. Bree had always assumed it involved sex and some kind of scandal. But now, she knew.
It was for her. The slave woman. Who was she to him? And more importantly, why did Bree suddenly feel so… betrayed? Left out?
Around her the crowd surged forward. Fur and sweat rubbed against her. Around her. She ignored it. Ignored them. The crowd was gone. There was just the woman. The beautiful, bronzed slave woman, who somehow knew Santon and who was, quite obviously, in a heap of trouble.
Bree sized up her captors. Eight guards, one taskmaster with a whip and other less savory implements strung onto his hips, and one pampered looking merchant they all deferred to. That was ten. Ten men, one slave woman, and Bree. They were not good odds.
Bree sighed. This was one dirty glass. No, this was worse than a dirty glass. This was a celebration with dry kegs! This was… This was…
Bree frowned, gritted her teeth and drew Tempest.
This was the time to take a lesson from Santon and barrel headfirst into an impossible situation without fear of failure.
Bree grabbed her wineskin, took a deep swig and smiled. If there was anything Cayden Cailean would be sure to smile upon her for, it would be saving an attractive looking young woman from slavery.
“Cayden’s will be done!”
The first of the guards felt her blade before he saw it. It wasn’t until he was on the floor at her feet and she had gutted the second guard that any of the others ever noticed her.
The slave woman, kicked out with her legs at the guard who had punched her. Bree took her opening and sliced him in the arm once and then twice. By then the other guards had regained their senses, and charged her.
Bree cursed. Two down, one wounded. So much for good luck.
The slave woman kicked the wounded guard again in the chest, and then in the face. He stumbled back.
Bree parried a blow from one of the guards, and then another. She tried to keep an eye on the slave woman, but found quickly that she couldn’t spare her the attention. Four armed guards slashed at her with falchions and scimitars. Bree dodged, and parried, then ducked and dodged. She waved her scimitar frantically before her, fending them off. She heard strangled cries beside her – the woman? – but couldn’t make it out over the din of the crowd.
Bree cursed. This had been a bad idea.
She dodged another blow then angled herself towards the cries. She twisted amongst the crowd, throwing gnolls in the way of blades, hurling glasses and diving over tables. Finally, she spotted the slave woman. Somehow, she had taken down the wounded guard, but another held her arms behind her back while the taskmaster raised a small whip against her stomach. She screamed, and the merchant yelled. Bree gritted her teeth. She dodged another wide slash of a falchion, and then dove over another table. She came up in a roll behind the taskmaster and drove her blade into his back. They tumbled to the ground together in a heap. Bree rolled over. A large blade streaked towards her face – one of the guards!
The slave woman kicked the blade off course, causing it to slice off the toes of another of the guards. He screamed and fell to the floor beside Bree. Bree rolled backwards, onto her feet and sliced the guard holding the slave woman across the arm. He screamed and let go of the woman. In a flash she had her scimitar drawn and was wielding it against the guards. Bree smiled.
Two women. Three healthy guards, two wounded and a merchant.
Perhaps her god was watching over her after all.
Bree drew her blade across the throat of the guard screaming on the ground, and the one who had almost killed her. The slave woman spun, slicing the guard who had held her in the arm once, and then again. Her skirts and veils flew around her in a twister. Bree blinked in awe as the woman spun, and spun, her scimitar whirling about her. Blood was drawn and splattered across the room in an instant as she twirled and danced at her attackers.
Bree skewered another guard in the time it took the slave woman to kill the other three.
The woman, bloody and breathless, looked about her. She turned to Bree, opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again. Her eyes narrowed. Her lips parted in a silent scream.
“No,” the woman whispered.
Bree’s stomach turned to stone. She followed the woman’s gaze to the stage.
Oh, gods. No. Please, no.
Kardswann stood over the body of Santon. Blood dripped down his axe. He roared, and the crowd surged forwards in response.
The slave woman screamed.