Even in the inky black of the midnight hour, Jak could see the shapes of two sentries at opposite ends of the encampment. How strange? There was no moon tonight so his eyesight had to be keen indeed. Weird but welcome. Keep eating those carrots...
Crouched under the first of the four circled wagons Jak ceased sawing at a wheel-spoke with his hunting knife to check his maths again - a noted weakness of his.
If this first shift was the standard four hours, they were due to switch shifts any minute now. That was with three shifts, if there were only two they were just over half finished. Regardless they would be half asleep dreaming of their bedrolls.
Now was the ideal time to strike. Captain Kennison and the cavalry would be coming soon... Or they weren’t?
If Kennison had left the ridge straight away it would have taken him an hour to get back to the caravan. Give them another hour to convince the others and get organised. Then another hour back here… He was pretty sure that was three hours, and it had already been four. So they were probably in position debating a plan of attack. Hopefully they’d join in once Jak and Kuruk did their bit.
Or Kennison could have watched and waited half an hour for Jak’s promised attack? Then another half hour to be sure… In which case they’d just be arriving now-ish? Bloody arithmatic would be his undoing. Or, would Kennison wrongly assume Jak was bluffing and leave things be?
Too much bloody thinking. He tapped Fang on the shoulder as a signal to follow him and they scurried under the cover of the circled wagons to the farthest one. Thankfully it wasn’t raining, or the guards would undoubtedly be sleeping underneath them. He held his breath until a sentry passed by then bade Fang “stay”.
Staying bent over in a low crouch he silently stalked the unsuspecting sentry until he was out of earshot of his sleeping compatriots. Drawing his hunting knife into a reverse grip he leapt up, clamping his left hand over the Sandclansman's mouth. Nudging his knees into the back of the guard’s knees, Jak bent the man backwards so he couldn’t draw breath to scream. With an involuntary grunt, Jak drew the razor sharp blade's edge across the guard's exposed throat. Gurgling blood gushed over his lower hand. Jak stepped backwards and to the side, letting the lifeless body slump to the ground.
His heart thumped wildly, he'd slit someone's throat! He'd done it to dozens of animals over the years, but that was while hunting food. This was a human... Although some scum-bucket slaver barely qualified. He'd killed men before, 10 or more, but never this cold blooded and up close... Oh no, once he did... Sort of.... With a gulp he quelled his racing heart and quashed his burbling emotions. Kuruk depended on him. Guilt or whatever it was could wait.
Crouching again, he rummaged around and found a couple of coins but no keys. He cursed under his breath - but still pocketed the coins. It was now up to Kuruk and Fang. He stood and threw a stone across the camp at a clump of boxwood shrubs to alert the hidden Kuruk. After warily surveying his surroundings once more he dragged the sticky, metallic-smelling bloody corpse behind a nearby bunch of bushes before rejoining Fang under the wagon.
“Keys fetch” he whispered, grabbing the wolf’s shaggy shoulders and steering him in the direction of the remaining sentry. “Shush,” He said staring into Fang’s arctic blue eyes. "Not friend."
The big wolf nodded once then slunk away into the dark.
A minute later, Jak heard a muffled “urk” sound from the direction of the second sentry. It may have been muffled but still he’d heard it. Dammit. Sure enough sleeping bodies began to stir… It was literally a shot in the dark but he’d told Kuruk to aim for the head not the throat… This was heading south for sure. Where was Fang anyway?
Twenty yards behind him a spirea bush rustled then parted in the middle. It was the wolf, a large key-ring clamped in his bloody jaws he began crawling on his belly towards him. Good boy. Voices now. Urgent and raised. Some variant of Sarkian, not Jak’s best language but the word “wagon” was repeated in Perugian. As Fang neared Jak leapt out snatched at the keys. He stage whispered the word ”hide!” and shoved the big wolf back the way he came. Jak scuttled under the wagons, scrambling through the shadows barely a step ahead of the herky-jerky rays of handheld lamplight.
He had the keys, now he had to get out from under the wagons. Booted footsteps and a wavering lamplight approached from the inner circle illuminating the underside of the trailers. On the far side he stepped on a wheel spoke, reaching for the top of the crate he pulled himself up, throwing a leg over before rolling over the edge onto his back. Chest heaving in exertion and relief, he breathed deeply... Relaxing… Suddenly, a stabbing migraine-like pain seared into his forehead and he almost cried out.
He’d been head pecked! Second time today. This time by an irate Peregrine falcon. He’d forgotten all about the large birds shackled to the rooves of the cage wagons. He rolled back to the edge. He didn't want to ruffle any more feathers, not with the slavers searching about below, they’d surely hear any kind of kerfuffle above… The birds were waking though, slowly stretching out the wide wings which had entombed them… Cheeps and chirps of discontent began to skitter about… Then a shadow of silence descended upon them. Arn had arrived in all her gigantic glory, swooping down from the starless sky above. She alighted next to Jak, staring down any would-be squawkers. Ha, that showed them! Apparently there was a natural pecking order...
Ouch, he’d been pecked again. Arn again. At the moment he felt about as hen-pecked as a potato skin after his chickens Scramble and Omelette had been at it. What? She was staring at his hand. The keys. Of course. Might as well release the birds since he was up here - give him something to do while he waited. What harm could it do?
“Just make sure that Peregrine pecker-head keeps his distance,” he grumbled, fumbling around the ring for the right key. There were four birds other than the unfriendly falcon, including two hawks and an albatross. All were on their best behaviour, cowed by Arn’s size and strangely fierce demeanour. After Jak unlocked the legs of all five of her feathered friends she was suddenly her old smoochy self again, cooing in his ear and rubbing her feathered head against his chin. It tickled and despite his dire predicament he smiled.
With a lazy flap she ascended into the trees again and Jak's smile froze on his upturned face. The giant eagle had cast an even bigger shadow by cutting between the campfire and the searchers carrying lanterns, instantly earning the attention of several Sandclansmen. Then the five other birds, finally realising they’d been freed too, took to the air as well. Their exodus was far from orderly and more of a mad flap. It wasn't quiet either as raucous crowing and cackling ensued.
The forgotten remnants of Jak's smile were wiped clean away. A couple of guards were pointing directly at him and shouting. No doubt the silhouette of him crouched on top of the wagon stood out like a sore thumb. He tried flapping his arms but in the sudden glare of a lamplight from directly below, he was fooling no-one. He’d confused the foreigners though. Utterly embarrassed himself but confused his foes. Suddenly the lamp rudely illuminating his glowing face shattered, dropped to the ground as its former holder had been feathered. The arrow came from the camp nearside, so he had Kuruk to thank, not Kennison and the calvalry.
Taking advantage of the dark again - and gravity - Jak dived down on top of the second guard who’d also been checking underneath the wagons. His weight pounded the guard into the ground. Rolling aside and to his feet, Jak drew and thrust his sword through the still prone Sandclansman's throat before he could recover. Standing over the still gurgling guard, he yanked his sword free, then double-handed he stabbed downwards again, deep between the ribs to finish him. He had to stand on the man's chest to jerk his blade free again. By that time three guards were closing in on him.
“Anytime now Kennison,” Jak thought. glancing over his shoulder to the northern ridge of the valley. Nothing. Three foes with their wicked curved blades glinting from the firelight, advanced. The bully’s smirks on their thin lips flattened out when the one nearest the fire grunted in surprise. Feathered from behind. Kuruk to the rescue!
Jak thumped the starry-eyed guard in the face as he ran by. His friends paused to catch his fall and Jak sprinted off, squinting at his feet, towards the fire. Realising their compatriot was as good as dead, the two Sandclansmen dropped him and chased after Jak. But Jak was spry; at full sprint he closed his eyes and jumped into the blazing fire.
It was a trick he dreamed up on guard duty. Campfires weren’t bonfires and were easy to jump. Even if you went through flames it was for but a hair’s breadth of time and at most you’d get singed. The knack was not to look directly at the light or you’d instantly go night-blind - which is why sentries were taught to always look away from the fire. His foes fell for both elements of his trap. Firstly, they couldn't help but stare at the fire then by the time they cottoned on and ran around it, Jak rabbit was well gone...
Except he wasn’t. He was waiting for them approximately a chain ahead. Jak rubbed his eyes and stumbled up the embankment into the undergrowth. And then, when they pursued, he led them a merry chase deep into the forest. Finally, in a clearing, he allowed them to tree him, scuttling up four-yards high using his claw-like finger nails.
They barked at him for a bit in their bastard Sarkian but he simply basked in the free language lesson. After a spell, when he was sure no others were coming, Jak cut short the impromptu study session retrieving his bow and feathering the three of them. He’d never forget the look on their faces, like they’d been betrayed. Reavers however, didn't deserve righteous indignation, only arrows. Scrambling down Jak duly collected their coins and naked blades – no time for scabbards, he set off into the underbrush towards his rendezvous with Kuruk.
Jak arrived second, just after Fang who was already tugging at Star and Stomp's reins trying to untie them. Jak untied them proper and lead the beasts around to face the east.
"Well, that was a dismal failure!" A clearly flustered Kuruk arrived. He appeared bedraggled and was dragging his feet. Time for a Jak inspirational talk.
"I disagree. It was fairly successful in my books."
"How do you figure that?"
"We're both alive aren't we?"
"No, suppose about it, there's only the quick and the dead.”
He said handed his friend Stomp’s reins.
"Though it's no thanks to our miserable workmates... I thought you were more popular than that."
Kuruk heaved himself aboard Stomp. "We didn't free any prisoners though!"
"Yet.” Jack jingled a clinking iron key-ring. ”Chapter two tomorrow. "
"Surely you're jest? We're not going through that all again?"
"Of course we are, should be a swim in a summer pond second time around.
"Truly - I'll need your purse though."
"How come all your shady schemes centre around my purse? Kuruk grumbled but began reaching into his breeches. "I suppose it’s no use to me if I'm dead..."
"That's the spirit. Speaking of...How many kills did you get with your bow?”
"Three I think... And I winged two."
Jak counted out on his fingers.
"So counting my four..." Jak held his hands up in front of his face to check his mental tally. "Overall, I make it six dead and three injured..."
"Nope. Seven dead and three injured!"