At sun-up Kuruk began shadowing the Sandclan caravan. Well, Arn did from the air... and he and Stomp ambled along after her at a safe distance. When the slavers stopped for their midday meal, she alighted in a tree and he caught up. Merging into the nearby bushes, he spied on them for ten minutes before skipping ahead through the woods.
He could see that their three injured men had replaced the five freed birds atop the animal cage strapped to the shackles. As Jak predicted it had been slow going. Initially because they sought to minimise the lurching for their injured brethren, but mid-morning things went downhill even more when the wheels, literally, came off.
First one then another. It took an hour and a hundred curses to exchange the first one with the spare strapped to a caravan roof. Then half an hour later a second one went on the same wagon. It appeared Jak had kept himself busy while waiting last night… When it was discovered they had no other spare the same size, the finger pointing really began.
The reavers were like headless chickens out there. Kuruk surmised one of the men they’d killed had been the leader. Eventually with much hammering and gutteral yammering, three of them managed to mostly fix the first wheel. Then their slow progress resumed into the afternoon, albeit with half an eye on the wobbly wheel.
Fang found him around four o’clock, suddenly poking his shaggy head out of cluster of pine saplings, snuffling cheerfully when Kuruk jumped out of his skin. His shaggy friend was so good humoured about it that Kuruk couldn’t hold a grudge. The wolf wasn’t about to wait around for forgiveness anyway. Fang sat for barely five minutes, idly flicking an itchy ear with his palm-sized back paw. He lolled for another minute while Kuruk ruffled his ruff then he turned to go - pausing only to snap up the proffered deer jerky, before melting into the forest.
Kuruk waited impatiently. Two hours later Fang returned with Jak - supposedly out on a scouting foray - who promptly offered him a stick of deer jerky. Kurk still had some, but it was a particularly tasty looking morsel, marbled with thin lines of fat, so he took it with a grunt.
Formalities complete, Jak outlined his updated plan. Kuruk of course hated it, but held his peace. Fear didn't rule The Bear. They ate several more sticks of deer jerky then Jak left. Best friends for life.
As per the plan, Jak had taken Stomp with him. Now Kuruk had not only reavers but hours to kill. First of all he reviewed the plan to make sure it was all straight in his head. He’d found from fighting brigands, that when battle began a lot of plans went out the window. It was still best to have them though, if only for the peace of mind.
He checked times and timings in particular. Jak was terrible at maths... And money... Mainly Kuruk’s... Speaking of the devil, Jak still hadn’t returned his coins from earlier. Sure, it was only seven coppers, but still, it was the principle of the matter... In sooth he didn't really care. Culturally he had no need or desire for coins, the Ankan always bartered for goods and services. He knew Jak didn't care either, everything was a means to an end for him. Secretly, he enjoyed having one over his friend... Lecturing from the moral high ground...
He shook his head. Don’t get bogged down in the irrelevant, he chided himself. Focus on your part and doing it properly.
As dusk set in, Kuruk crept his way through the woods to where the slavers had set up camp. He was still the only one on the south side, the others would all attack from the north - apart from Jak of course. He'd be slap, dash in the middle.
The Sandclansmen were clearly creatures of habit and had set up their camp– as Jak had predicted - the exact same way as before. The wagon’s were in a half circle as a wind break with everyone sleeping in the lee of the south bank of the valley - guards on the east side and prisoners on the west with the large campfire between them. Good, the bare bones of the plan were still in place...
Now it was a waiting game.
Kuruk drew Notaku and his sharpening stone. His magical sword however, didn’t need honing, so he turned his attention to the two Sarkian scimitars which Jak had left him, neither of which was well kept at all. He buffed out several nicks and dents, finding a deep sense of heartsease in the menial task.
Kuruk's guard partner, Ox, had been a blacksmith. He often spoke in hushed tones about the cathartic pleasure of hammering a creation into existence. The burning fire got in one's belly he'd said. The big man claimed he got a thrill in testing his mettle and will against the anvil. Kuruk understood the attraction; he could see himself in a smithy... Marion as his wife... Children… Hmph, only if his mother’s geas or Jak’s schemes didn’t get him killed first. He stashed the scimitars as close as he dared, in the middle of an already spiky shrub then stole away into the twilight.
They’d doubled the guard. Captain Jak had anticipated this too, insisting it was a good thing. He’d argued that if they only had ten men, they could only cover two long shifts of six hours with four men on each. Unlike the usual three shifts of four hours with two or three men.
“Which means that come five o’clock tomorrow morning, they’ll all be dead on their feet,” he’d said. “Get it!”
As a hard and fast rule, Kuruk ignored all Jak's jokes, but the rest made sense he supposed. Mayhap Jak didn’t have a death wish after all? Was it even a death wish if it was aimed at Kuruk? Or was he just expendable? Jak wanted the almighty Sarkian Emperor Rakkesh dead in the worst way, was that a death wish or a vendetta? Or simply wishful thinking?Perugian was a problematic language… Kuruk fell asleep.
He woke to find Fang licking his face. Woozily he gazed about. It was still pitch black, so sometime before the false dawn. He yawned and stretched. Fang nuzzled Kuruk’s shoulder then pawed at the ground in front of him, adding a layer of dirt to a key already covered in slobber. Yuck, however Kuruk needed the key – lives depended on it.
He fished it out with thumb and forefinger slapping it lightly against a sticky acacia bush. That got the bulk of the drivel off, he wrapped the corner of his tunic around the key and rubbing it back and forth between thumb and forefinger before popping it into his tragically empty purse. It wasn’t like ‘Bear’ to be so dainty, but he was trying to put off what happened next. He also didn’t want to think about anything that might trigger his nerves.
Arriving at the ambuscade site, Kuruk strung his bow then checked the arrows in his quiver. Jak had brought him four more shafts so he had seven. The new ones weren’t up to their usual high standards though, so as he arrayed the arrows out on the ground, placing the best three nearest to his hand. It was doubtful he’d get all seven shots away so he might as well make them as accurate as possible.
He’d positioned himself on the far east of the encampment, up on the southern bank of the former stream to give himself an angle to aim. He got on one knee, twisting it back and forth in the dirt making a small furrow for stability. He selected and nocked the nearest arrow then drew back the bow with a shudder. Deep breath, deep breath…. Dammit.
He stood up again, he’d almost forgotten Jak’s pride and joy, the almighty oily stick. Kuruk couldn’t help but grin as he unwrapped the muslin cloth, plucking out a ludicrous stick that even Fang wouldn’t fetch. And just like that the pressure building up evaporated.
Their secret weapon was three feet long and Y-shaped. The stick wasn’t particularly sharp or pointed but it was definitely sticky, fair dripping with cooking oil. Here goes nothing, he thought and hurled it down the hill towards the fire. He didn’t even look to see if he’d hit, but got back down on his knee and drew his bow again. In the end it must've landed at least halfway in, because he heard a loud sizzle then saw the slavers sit up and stare at their fire that suddenly was smoking badly.
One of them scrambled to his feet,. In the act of turning, he presented a wide target. A gift which Kuruk took centre mass.
Now the slavers were all staring in his direction, but they couldn’t see squat, because they were night-blind from staring at his fire distraction. Might as well be bats.... Kuruk aimed another arrow and hit a slaver in the shoulder. He heard ‘aargh” and series of equally Sarkian-sounding words straight after.
Instantly the slavers took cover. Spliting up and scattering outward like waves after a stone got thrown into a still pond. The front of Kuruk's nocked bow flowed back and forth scanning for targets. He couldn't confidently draw a bead on anything large enough. Breathing out, he lowered the bow, loosening the tension on the string and his shoulders. But not yet in his head.
It seemed the slavers had learned something after all. His foes kept low going for their own few bows which were now nearer at hand than the night before. It appeared they were still night-blind though, as an arrow whistled by six-feet wide and five high. High, wide and handsome, the miss still set his heart athumping though.
Anyone could get lucky with enough tries, so Kuruk abandoned his remaining arrows and position. Wedging his bow between two nearby saplings, he retreated west through the woods towards the swords. So far so alive.
Over to you Jak. Unleash the beasts.!