"So, what business brings you to Redel?" Hugo asked. He was sitting beside Frey, inside the wagon. Across from them were two unconscious bald men, looked over by Gren who sat beside them.
"Looking to get a better weapon." Frey said. "I heard there's an exceptional smith in Redel going by the name of Barton. I wish to see if he is indeed as good as word-of-mouth makes him out to be."
Half of the wagon interior was occupied by stacks and stacks of shiny, satin-like cloth that came in different bright colors. Gren called them "Vermillion", or something close. Probably something Frey didn't have to know, but every bit of knowledge about this world helps.
"Oh he is probably as good as you have heard, alright." Hugo said. "But, the thing is, Barton's been apprehended for masterminding a prison break."
"He did that?" Frey asked as if knowing nothing, though he was about to mastermind a prison break himself, or something not wholly different from the idea.
"We were all surprised, you see. For the past decade he'd been the supplier of arms for the Imperial Force. I'm something of a patron of his services, myself."
Hugo drew the shortsword that had been hanging on his waist the whole time.
Simple was the best word to describe his weapon. A double-edged steel blade, tapering at the end. The guard was made of bronze, with the handle coated with leather.
"This was the earliest weapon I've bought from him. It's been with me for twelve years, yet I can count in one hand the times I've had to sharpen it."
Interesting. So that's what Tack meant when he said Barton was too valuable to kill. His craftsmanship was considered impeccable throughout Redel, that the king himself contracted him. If Frey didn't know any better, Barton might've even been friends with the King at some point.
"It's a real shame that he went rebel, you know? He's the best there is, and his apprentices don't even come close."
"Ah, is that so?" Frey wore a cramped smile and said nothing more. Tack wouldn't want to hear that one.
"Rumor has it the Runic class weapons he used to produce could beat some of the Artifact class." Gren added.
"That's just rumors. Those who could afford to buy Runics from him are probably collectors from a rich family. They wouldn't even use them."
"General Kred has one, allegedly."
"The spear that can blast fire?" Hugo flared his nose. "Oh please, that's just bored captains seeing things. Even if it has magic, I doubt it's a Runic from Barton. Those cost a castle each."
"B-but we wouldn't know for sure, right? I mean he's a general and all. And he's involved with corruption..."
"Shush kid," Hugo shook his head. "Even if it's obvious, you don't get to say those things. You're going to get yourself hanged."
"Aye, sir." Gren hung his head.
The wagon rocked, skidding to a halt.
"Oy, why'd you stop?" Hugo shouted to the two soldiers at the reins outside the wagon.
"We've reached the crossroads sir. There's... a prison caravan ahead." replied a soldier.
"Is it ours?"
"It seems so, sir."
"I'll check." Gren was rising from his seat when Hugo held down his lap.
"I'll do it. You go watch these two cretins, we don't want them out of sight."
"Can I come?" Frey asked.
"But of course."
A dissatisfied frown overtook Gren's face, and Frey could feel his glare follow him as he stepped down the wagon.
He's not going to be a problem, is he?
The caravan the two soldiers were talking about laid a good ten meters ahead, lodged by the roadside. It consisted of two cars, each smaller than the cargo wagon, and were pulled by one horse each instead of two. Inside both cars were dozens of women and children crammed like sardines packed in a can. They all wore the same dirty white rags he saw Liezel and Tack wearing, but with the addition of steel cuffs around their wrists and chains binding their ankles.
Four soldiers were sitting in a huddle beside the caravan, laughing with flasks of liquor in hand. When they saw Frey and Hugo approaching, they waved bottles at them.
"I do not like this." Hugo muttered under his breath.
Frey didn't open his mouth, but he was feeling about the same. As they walked past the first wagon, toward the four soldiers, Frey couldn't help but look in the eyes of the prisoners. Perhaps it was the gloom in their gazes, their silent plea for help, that made him stop for a moment and stare.
"Help us, please." he heard a woman beg from among the prisoners. He turned away.
Not now. He told himself. Biting his lower lip, with his fists clenched and trembling, Frey walked on. He was already in a favorable position with the guards. He wasn't about to ruin it for a vague sense of justice. He shouldn't.
Catching up, he took Hugo's side and walked to match the old man's leisurely pace.
"This isn't a prisoner caravan at all." Hugo said, a scowl of distaste falling onto his face.
"What do you mean?" Frey tilted his head. Ahead, the four soldiers beckoned for them with delirious smirks on their faces.
"It's all women and kids in there. If that isn't a slave pack, I don't know what is."
Slave. Frey shuddered at the thought. He should've expected it from how medieval the soldiers of Redel seemed, wielding swords and spears and wearing armor, but nonetheless it was bile in the gut to think an actual slave trade flourished so openly in this world. Humans are cruel creatures no matter the world they're in, aren't they?
Just before they got close to the huddle of drunken troops Hugo put a hand on Frey's shoulder.
"Stay here," Hugo said. His chest was puffed as he walked with a robust gait, and Frey simply watched Hugo approach the four steel-clad knights wearing the crimson Redel emblem on their chests.
"Good day, men." Hugo greeted. One from the group, a tall man with an unkempt stubble on his fat chin and a beer belly stood up and intercepted him. Frey couldn't hear what they were talking about, but he didn't move from where he stood.
The talk between Hugo and the fat soldier continued. The fat soldier pointed below the first car where, instead of a wooden wheel, a grainy rock was lodged, keeping the bottom of the wagon from kissing the ground. Hugo nodded, and the other soldiers got up and broke their mid-day party. They were suddenly alert, two hopping on both of the horses leashed to the wagons, while the other pair went with Hugo back to the cargo wagon.
"Ardey, Horan, get our spare wheel out." Hugo shouted at his two soldiers standing by the cargo wagon. Frey understood what was happening then, and waltzed back inside the cargo wagon. A displeased Gren greeted him as he climbed up the foothold and eased into the wagon, sitting opposite from Gren and the two bandits who were then already wide awake.
"What's all the commotion about?" Gren asked. The two bald bandits sitting on his either side didn't so much as move, watching Frey with caution and fear seeping from their gazes.
"A stranded slave caravan. They're fixing the wheels right now, shouldn't take long." Frey replied. The bandits kept their stares locked onto him, but he paid them no mind. He wasn't about to be intimidated by them.
"I see. What a bother." Gren clicked his tongue. Outside, they could hear tools clanging and soldiers heaving, working, conversing with one another. Above their voices were Hugo's authoritative tone, giving orders to the soldiers like a boss. Probably because he was.
Minutes passed in utter silence between Frey and Gren. The silent animosity Gren held toward him, and Frey's indifference to it, brought about a tense atmosphere swirling in the cramped confines of the wagon. It was one of the bandits who broke the uneasy silence.
"You don't look like a Red." the bandit to the right of Gren opened his mouth. He had a hulking body and a tanned complexion, wearing a leather vest over white shirt. His face looked striking and rugged, but clean-shaven at the same time.
"Are you talking to me?" Frey pointed at himself.
"Yeah you. Who else? I can tell you're not with these Red bastards." the bandit snorted, passing Gren a sidelong glance.
"Shut it, criminal. You're not allowed to talk." Gren chided.
"Oh come on, where's the harm?" the bandit laughed, raising his cuffed wrists and dangling them in front of Gren.
Gren gritted his teeth, at a loss for a rebuttal. The bandit turned to Frey and grinned with his canine sticking out.
"You really should choose who you're siding with, kid. We may be thieves, but we never raid villages and steal women and children and sell them like jewelry. I tell you."
"A rascal like you dares to talk about the Empire like you're some saint? I find that very funny." Gren retorted, smiling like he won the argument. The bandit simply exhaled and looked the other way.
The wagon shook as the two soldiers Ardey and Horan, the ones in charge of the reins, mounted the wagon front. It wasn't long until Hugo climbed back in, telling them the repair was a success.
"The caravan requested to form a convoy with us." Hugo then said. This earned a frown from Gren and silence from Frey and the bandits.
"Hugo, wouldn't they slow us down?" Gren complained. Hugo just sighed, shaking his head.
"I don't like it either, but refusing isn't an option. They're under direct order of General Verkel. You know how he is, don't you?"
"And besides, the city's only a day away. Bear with it."
"Sir, we're ready." the soldier named Ardey shouted.
"Okay. Slap them horses as soon as the caravan rolls." Hugo affirmed. He looked at Frey, then at Gren, nodding at both of them.
The wagon shook, moving forward once more. The bandit stared at Frey, shaking his head.