11. Not For Sale
Chapter 10 Not For Sale
The travelers rumbled along in the morning sunlight. It was already hot, and the wagons kicked up a cloud of dust. They rode as often as they walked now, for the road seemed smoother and the creaking wagons could jolt along faster than a walking pace.
The morning after the wizard's fiery battle they'd decided to travel by light. In the long summer days they made much better time. They soon began meeting other travelers. Curious eyes stared at the wagons and their occupants, and at the peculiar man with the fiery eyes and the grey robe who rode with them. Some rode by in silence. A few searched the wagons anxiously; then as if relieved at what they saw, nodded and smiled before riding on. But many inquired about the people in the wagons as if they were bolts of cloth.
"Any of them for sale?" A sneering yellow-haired man spoke as he rode alongside Incanus.
"For sale? Of course not." His jaw was clenched as he stared straight ahead.
"Peculiar to be bringing savages out of the north and taking 'em south."
There was no reply. The man peered at the wagons and their contents. A few of these savages seemed awfully bold, glaring right back at him, especially those two vicious looking brutes driving the mules. Most of the rest behaved well enough, as they should: heads bowed, eyes averted. His head twisted back and forth. That was surely strange, just one white man alone and all these slaves.
"Hey! You got no other guards!"
"How observant of you."
The man stared at the wagons again. "Seem healthy enough to me. Something wrong with this lot that you couldn't sell 'em up north?"
Incanus wanted nothing more than to set this idiot straight. But that would likely make matters even worse. Another battle seemed imminent. Reluctantly he placed a hand on his staff and began unwinding the loop of leather that tethered it to his saddle.
"Nothing is wrong with them."
The yellow-haired man's eyes narrowed. "Say, what's going on here? Who are you, and what are you up to with this lot?" The man pointed at the wizard's loose robe. It seemed an even odder costume now that the long hair and beard were gone. He laughed coarsely. "And that get up! You a man or a woman under there?"
Incanus turned and glared. The man's eyes flew open and he shrank back.
"Who and what I am is not your business, stranger. And neither are these people your business."
"No need to get so hot! Just asking a few questions…"
"You've asked enough questions!"
The man scowled and rode away. He rejoined his party. Incanus watched worriedly as the horsemen followed them. Finally they seemed to lose interest. They steered off at a crossroads and soon all that was left of them was a trail of dust.
He was ready for them when they returned in the small hours of night, a half dozen men creeping into the camp. Each man had a long coil of rope draped over one shoulder, and three carried whips at their belts. They moved stealthily, knives drawn, toward what seemed to be a bedded-down figure off by himself with a sleepy-looking roan standing quietly nearby.
The yellow-haired man from the road crouched over the bundle wrapped in blankets on the ground and raised his dagger for the kill. All at once he yelped and leaped back. He dropped his blade and wagged his hand.
"Yow!" he cried. Rubeo neighed loudly and began pawing the ground.
Five other daggers were flung down as all six men yelled. Rubeo reared up on his hind legs, pawed the air and neighed loudly. A voice spoke from behind them.
"Looking for something, gentlemen?"
They turned. Eyes gleamed at them from out of the darkness.
"Perhaps you're lost. The way out of our camp is over there."
A looming figure pointed to the right. Six sets of eyes widened and away they ran, leaving six glowing hot knives in the dirt. Ahmed, Farased and Mobasu stepped out from the shadows, holding a broken-hafted spear, a long dagger and an axe.
"Figured Yellow Hair and his friends would be back," Ahmed snorted.
"We guessed they'd come after you first, Incanus." Mobasu tested the edge of his axe with an experienced thumb. Needs sharpening, he thought.
Farased eyed the still smoking knives. Incanus certainly hadn't needed their help.
"Let those lie for a while longer," the wizard said. "They'll cool, soon enough. You can add them to our collection." He caught the roan's head and stroked it. "Calm down, Rubeo. It's over, for tonight. And thank you, my friends," he said to the three men. "Glad to know you were ready."
Another discussion took place that night, though the men took care to keep their voices low. Ahmed and Mobasu wanted to draw lots again, for a guard to be set on Incanus as he slept. But they were overruled. Why bother? The sorcerer obviously had no need for their aide, and to imply otherwise would surely insult him. He could take care of himself, and protect them all from harm too.
The wizard tried his best to do just that. There was no reason to hide his skills from these folk. They'd already witnessed a few vivid demonstrations. Without bothering to conceal it he spun a web over each wagon, very much like the one he had placed around Corli's farm. But perhaps these things were meant to remain in one location, for the nets kept drifting away as they moved along the road.
He tried a different spell to fasten them more tightly. This time the nets obeyed his command. But now the mules would not budge. They bucked and brayed, their eyes wide, hooves stamping. He tried reasoning with them in their own tongue. The braying grew louder. He appealed to Rubeo for help.
"Speak to them, Rubeo! Explain that the nets won't harm them, old friend."
The red stallion neighed at the mules imperiously. The wizard groaned as he listened to his proud mount's choice of words.
"You stupid half-breeds, do as my master says!"
"Get rid of your sparkling nets, Fire Wizard," one of the now furious mules called out, "or we won't pull another inch! And tell your ugly friend—the one that stinks like a big red cow—to stay away from us!"
It was no use. He was forced to undo them. He begged pardon from the mules and demanded Rubeo do the same. His horse tossed his head and complied reluctantly. Incanus watched in frustration as the blue strands floated away on the breeze. He tried to ignore two-dozen sets of staring eyes that watched in wonder from the side of the road.
The next morning he gathered everyone together to explain another idea. Over each person he wound an individual net of protective magic. By midday they were clamoring loudly for him to release them. The nets caught on each other in the close quarters and tugged irritatingly on their skin. But worse, hidden animosities set off blue sparks when someone drew near to another who held some unspoken resentment.
"Ah! Rassu, stay back! You're making this thing snap at me!"
"I'm making it snap at you? You keep your distance from me, Mgeni!"
"Incanus, take these terrible nets off us! Ouch! Get away from me, Ahmed. Stay over there, I'm warning you…"
Incanus cursed under his breath.
"I give up," he muttered as he waved his hands. The filaments vanished abruptly.
They would have to do the best they could in the ordinary way. Hardly a day passed that eager buyers did not approach the group of travelers. When their initial assumption--that all darker-skinned folk must be for sale--was proved wrong, many men gaped in disbelief, or sneered, avarice readily visible on their faces. Two-dozen healthy savages, ready to take and sell—save for that one surly-looking fellow in the outlandish outfit. Most were put off by stern words and a fierce look from the wizard. But not all.
Thinking on it afterward he thought at least one of the angry faces looked familiar. Perhaps the man rode by earlier--peering curiously, wondering--as so many had. Perhaps he had gone to find his friends, telling them of easy prey, of cartloads of runaway slaves, free for the taking: for didn't everyone know that runaways were like coins on the road, the rightful property of whoever could keep hold of them?
They were passing through a forested country. The day was dreary and rain had been falling for hours. Incanus felt uneasy. The prickling sensation on the back of his neck was constant. Ceaselessly, he scanned the mist-filled shadows beneath the trees, watching for something he could not name but knew was approaching.
"Take extra care today," he said to Rassu and Mgeni, who were driving the wagons. "Someone is following us. I'm certain they are not friendly."
The travelers pulled their weapons out, and two men crouched on guard in the back of each wagon. Mobasu and Ahmed stationed themselves beside the drivers, axe and spear at the ready.
The way wound between steep hills. Rain fell harder, and their pace slowed to a bumpy crawl. A few flickers of lightning lit up the darkened sky; thunder growled. The road narrowed to two muddy ruts. The drumming of the downpour on the trees filled the air with a low roar. The wagons were forced into single file while Rubeo, his proud head drooping, trudged between. As they rounded a sharp turn, the mules pulling the forward wagon began to bray.
"Help!" someone screamed.
Incanus spurred his mount, straining to see through a curtain of water. Rubeo and his master didn't get far.
Thirteen men on horseback splashed out of the woods. Four went after each wagon and the others crashed down from an embankment to cut off the wizard.
For fifteen fierce minutes the battle raged. Shouting, braying, clanging of metal on metal, screams and cries filled the air. The former slaves, women and children alike, rose up to defend themselves against the marauders. But though outnumbered, their attackers were mounted and better armed, and the struggle was hot. Just as one wagon drove back the riders, the other would appear about to fall. And between them a grey whirlwind spun.
It seemed a thunderstorm had descended to the narrow road, and in the very center of the maelstrom was Incanus astride Rubeo. He wheeled and swung, using his staff as shield and club. Rubeo reared and lashed out with his hooves. The storm intensified; flashes of brilliant light and ear-splitting crashes shook the air.
An arrow spun toward the wizard. He jerked backward and it whizzed by him. A blue thunderbolt flew in response. The air crackled and the bowman fell. Rassu, standing nearby, cursed and dove out of the way. Incanus was hemmed in. He dared not toss his deadly fire indiscriminately without endangering the others. They had plenty to worry about without his lightning to dodge. He glanced about. His friends in the wagons were fighting valiantly, but the battle was still in the balance.
A swordsman appeared on his left. The wizard raised his hand swiftly and the man's sword flew upward from his grip, twirling and sparkling in the raindrops. Incanus caught the hilt in his right hand and thrust the blade forward. His attacker shrieked and tumbled from his saddle.
"Behind you, Incanus!" Ahmed shouted. The wizard spun. The sword slashed and metal clanged on metal. But at the same moment another ruffian lunged from the opposite side and swung his blade. By instinct, Incanus' left arm jolted outward to block the attack with his staff. The wizard turned so quickly his face was a blur. Lightning flashed, and the man to his left screamed and fell. The other pulled up on his reins.
"Retreat! Retreat!" the man shouted, as he turned his horse and fled. The others quickly followed. The battle was over, as suddenly as it had begun. The marauders galloped away, defeated. They had not expected such resistance, or a battle with a sorcerer who was armed with lightning bolts. Runaway slaves, however valuable, were not worth this much trouble.