(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
From his vantage point Hansel could just about make out the two figures at the forefront of the party stopping to stare off into the distance. He tried to see what it was they were looking at but his hiding place, a large earthy mound, left little room for manoeuvring. He could probably make it out if he looked up from the mound, but it was far too risky. His master would be disappointed, but he’d sooner be beaten than killed.
It had been little over a year since his father bequeathed him to the service of his brother, and Hansel’s uncle, Elder Swansow. In life the two brothers had fought each other bitterly for reasons that were too complicated for Hansel to grasp, but as he lay upon his deathbed, his father had managed to win back his brother’s love by offering Hansel, his only son, to serve as his apprentice. Hansel had no doubt that this action had moved Swansow greatly, the Elder only rarely talked badly of his brother now, but at what cost had this redemption come for Hansel? His father was dead, and he, little more than a glorified man-servant to his uncle. How had he benefitted from this arrangement, if at all?
Hansel knew it was futile to complain. As he had often been told by Swansow’s acquaintances, he was fortunate, indeed blessed to have such an honour as to serve as his apprentice. For all the kind words he never really knew why it was he should feel fortunate, but it was better than a life on the streets and he tried to remember that whenever things got too difficult. As the Elder was so fond of saying, there was every chance that things could be worse, so appreciating what little one was given, was the only way to live.
Something was happening. Beams of near-blinding light had broken through the wall of gas. For some reason this strange phenomena seemed to have a profound effect on the two men who seemed to stare with greater intensity. Hansel squinted, straining to make out what they were looking at, but all he could see was a large cloud. Was that what they were looking at? It seemed unlikely, there were many of them dotted around the swamps, none of which seemed particularly interesting to him. What made this one so special? He sighed under his breath at such a disappointing find and made to get up but found to his horror that he was being pinned down by something heavy.
‘Not so fast, spy,’ grunted a man behind him, his words almost incoherent beneath the heavy foreign accent that accompanied them. Hansel felt the sweat dripping down his body, he wanted to cry but experience had taught him that crying would not bring mercy, only more pain.
Hansel tried to scream as two strong hands clasped around his neck and shoulder, but found that he could not, so tight was his attacker’s grip. Incapable even of turning to face the man, he could only stare back across the swamp to the two men. He watched as one of the men turned away from the gas and hastily returned to the bulk of the party. Then the hands pulled him to his feet so that he could finally see over the mound. For a moment he saw the gas, swirling before the lone watcher. It seemed to be moving towards him, stretching forth in curling patterns like the tentacles of some legendary sea monster, reaching out to encompass him.
His captor moved his hands from his throat and he was finally able to scream. He kicked and punched and screamed with all his might, and as he did so the gaseous tentacles seemed to turn in his direction as though searching for his location. Then the lone watcher turned as well, facing directly at the boy. He screamed again, louder still, his eyes so wide they looked fit to burst, his skin drained of all colour, but it was not at his attacker that he screamed, nor even the gas… it was at the nightmare visage that stared back at him.
‘Where the blazes did he come from?’ asked Lord Drovalak as he peered down at the unconscious body of their freshly captured prisoner. He was a young boy with a fiery mane of hair pulled back behind his head and tied in a ponytail. His face was still covered in mud from his encounter with the scouts, but his clothes though equally tarnished seemed vaguely familiar somehow.
‘My lord, I found him skulking behind those mounds.’ The soldier, whom Jethrin had identified as one Yakov Dachaski, pointed vaguely in the direction he had just come from.
Odius scowled, not so much at Yakov’s obvious lack of discipline, but at the myriad bruises and cuts that blemished the boy’s skin. Some looked old, weeks or months old, but others were much more recent. As he leant down to inspect the boy more closely he saw a trickle of blood dripping into a muddy puddle. He carefully followed the trail of blood back to its source and found a deep cut on the boy’s forehead. The cut was warm and as he pulled his hand away he saw to his disgust that it was covered in blood.
‘You Dachaski, come here,’ said Odius. He was smiling, but not with his eyes.
Diligently the soldier stepped forward, kneeling before the boy as Lord Drovalak bid him to do so. Yakov was a young man himself, perhaps little older than seventeen years, though his hardened face and impressive collection of scars did a reasonable job of disguising his youth. He was lowborn and had the air of a street thug, that doubtlessly echoed of a previous profession before pledging himself to military service. Odius did not consider himself especially prejudiced against common folk, but still he found little to sympathise with in the adolescent’s cold dark eyes.
‘Place your hand on this boy’s head,’ said Lord Drovalak, indicating the cut.
Yakov cringed as his hand found it, his fingers nimbly tracing its depth and size.
‘Keep your hand covering the wound,’ said Odius leaning closer to the soldier. Gently he clasped Yakov’s tunic and dragged him so that his ear was level with Odius’s lips. ‘Mark my words, soldier, and mark them well,’ he spoke through clenched teeth, and flecks of spit were spraying into Yakov’s ear. ‘If I ever so much as hear tell of you brutalising an unarmed civilian again I will personally see to it that every single scratch on this poor boy’s body is reimagined on yours.’ Odius could feel the young man’s heart beating faster as his lips all but touched his ears. ‘Twofold,’ he added before releasing his grasp and sending the man tumbling backwards.
‘But, my lord,’ pleaded Yakov. ‘He was spying on us! How do you know he is a civilian?’
Odius leisurely walked over to the soldier who was hastily trying to pull himself back onto his feet, and backhanded him squarely in the jaw. The soldier cried out in shock more than pain and had barely recovered his composure in time for the second backhand to send him flying back into a puddle, sprays of muddy water covering his face and seeping into his wide eyes. Odius turned to leave, noting with some satisfaction, the soldier’s distress as he tried to remove the dirt from his eyes.
‘Put your hand on that wound,’ Lord Drovalak ordered, without turning. ‘You caused this, so he is your responsibility, and you had better pray to your Black God that he survives, because if he does not, then neither will you.’