Aside from the clanking of buckles and the regular thwapping of leather straps, it was strangely silent as Kuruk's would-be saviours saddled up. Apart from Star, only Erek appeared wide awake, alert and keen. Jak had a viable excuse. He was supposedly worried about Bear - which also explained the grim visage on the normally amiable Ox.
Secretly, Jak was also distracted by his plans within plans, in particular the hidden keys that were burning a hole in his pocket. Pockets actually. An hour ago, he'd removed the four remaining large keys from the ring and stuffed them into separate pockets to stop them clinking - two in his vest and two in his breeches. What a tangled web he'd woven...
It was another three hours until sun up and apparently Jak was the only one who could see Arn circling above.
When they were ready, Jak lead them out - Star wouldn't have it any other way - south east down the trail. A determined looking Kennison rode in his wake. Closely followed by Ox and Erek. The rescue party were seemingly strung out in order of keenness with Grant, Snake, Karn, Ellis then Fabrice bringing up the rear.
It only took an hour to find their foe, barely fifteen minutes off the trail, due east along the same stream-bed they'd been following the day before. Jak returned from scouting ahead and halted the group before reporting to Kennison. Approaching from the rear, they staked their horses several furlongs shy then scaled the northern bank before scrambling their way into the deep woods.
As they neared the encampment, Jak pace slowed and his steps became stealthier. Why he even bothered, when the rest of the herd stampeded behind him he truly did not know. Fortunately the reavers had set up as before against the far bank, with a hundred feet and a half-moon of wagons between them and their blundering rescuers.
Crouching under cover of a cluster of bushes, they beheld their sleeping foes - most for the first time - some thirty to forty yards away. Jak pointed out the two pairs of circling sentries, then reluctantly handed Grant his bow. Sadly they were down to two bows with Kuruk's supposedly captured. The third came from the guard cart. It was reserved for occasional hunting foray, a duty that Jak and Kuruk had instantly inherited, and if it was made of metal rather than wood, it would be rusty The barely adequate bow was handed to barely adequate Ellis, the third best archer amongst the group. Grant was the fourth best but Jak didn't like or trust Ellis so reluctantly gifted him his own bow.
Both guards accepted their assigned weapons without question. The pair appeared both relieved and a little guilty at being posted out of harms way of any upcoming affray. They each nodded once at Kennison then stomped off into the bushes on either side. Jak shook his head, mostly to clear his ringing ears. Did they realise their role was not actually to stamp flat the surrounding undergrowth, but to track and dispatch any sentries at Jak's signal?
One that would never come. Jak's assigned - by himself - role was to infiltrate the camp, locate and protect Kuruk before signalling the attack. What he was actually going to do was let his friend begin the battle, while he attempted to free the animals in the ensuing confusion. Hopefully the guards would join in too. Both sets.
It was a far from foolproof plan, but this battle was also far from black and white. There were many different parties in play here. Shades of grey and all had their own unique angles: Slavers, slaves, animals, good guards, bad guards, traders and them. It was a juggling act using knives. Jak and Kuruk had agreed that the other guards and traders especially could not be trusted to free the captive beasts - not when they were worth so much. They wouldn't look a gift horses in the mouth - especially ones that came with their own wagons already. That wasn't Wolf Clan Jak's or the Ankan way. Freedom was what they were fighting for. Freedom for all.
"So we await your signal?" Kennison interrupted his thoughts. "Uh, what will it be exactly?"
"You'll know it when you see... I mean hear it." Jak said. "Just keep your eyes down and listen - whatever you hear, don't look at the fire."
When Jak could see the pairs of guards were at either end of the encampment, he faded into the darkness. Pressing his sword to his thigh as he slid down the embankment. Rolling onto his front, Jak lizard-slithered across the creek bed toward the middle wagons, before working his way to east to the front one. He’d release the beasts eastwards; hopefully they’d follow the lead of the first to go. That way if everything else went south, he could flee west towards their horses. Gods above, this plan was convoluted... And it was his plan! Right this minute, he'd take to escape without getting eaten.
Jak quickly slid around the corner to the far side - away from the towering campfire - of the first wagon. Seizing two bars, he squinted between them into the inky blackness… GRRRR! The darkness snarled back at him, a thrumming bass that shook the whole cage. He did not want to look again - Lords and ladies he didn’t - but forced himself to. Fortunate for him he did, as a striped paw the size of a dinner plate slapped at his hand. He snatched his digits back, as claws the thickness of his thumb clanged against the iron bars still wearing his fingerprints.
Bad kitty! What an ungrateful wretch! ...He still secretly wanted one though... Jak ignored the booming growl, glaring daggers at the large animal, until finally it blinked and backed away. Huh? The old adage about only man being able to stare must be true... Warily Jak tried the keys again, finding success on his third attempt.
Steeling himself, he flung the cage door away from him. He made sure to tug the door fully open, pressing himself back up against the side of the wagon, sealing his upper body between the barred door and the wagon. With a lurch the hidden tiger stalked forward and thrust its humongous head out of the opening. It balefully regarded Jak for a terrifying moment, but then its ears began twitching at the tumult on the other side of its cage. It sniffed disdainfully at the smoky fire before daintily lowering itself gingerly to the ground with a solid thud before bounding away. Jak breathed again, desperate gulps of air his racing heart required. One down, three to go.
Thankfully the other animals only had eyes for freedom. First the gorilla then the lion ignored the melee... and more importantly Jak, preferring to plunge into the obscurity of the nearest brush. Apart from the last one..
It wasn't an animal at all.
Jak arrived at the last cage and peeked around the corner to find the battle raging – he searched around for Kuruk and found him where he was supposed to be, protecting the prisoners. Two tall northroners each wielding one of Jak’s seized scimitars stood on either side. Behind them five other prisoners cowered while another crouched down with his back to Jak was unlocking the shackles around the other's ankles. The first two freed must have fled into the forest already – hopefully they hadn’t strayed too far ... or too east and crossed paths with the tiger… As Jak watched a pair of reavers warily approached the three armed men. before concertedly attacking. There was a clash of steel and the two groups engaged. Jak wanted to charge in to help, but had one cage left.
Suddenly, an angry gorilla burst out of a cluster of rhododendron bushes above the encampment. Surprise! It thumped its barrel chest, screeching in defiance before just as suddenly disappearing again. Unfortunately it's frantic cameo appearance, had raised an all too obvious question... And the suddenly all too obvious answer was: Jak!
All Sandclan eyes turned back toward the cages. A cry of outrage let him know he’d been spotted. He fumbled in his breeches for the final key. Inserting it hurriedly he tugged the door open.
The creature that surged out wasn’t an animal at all, but an ogre. Correction ogress, still the best part of seven foot tall though. She grabbed Jak’s collar in her huge mitt, lifting his blanching face up to her flushed red one. His rudimentary language skills deserted him,... Apart from basic ogrish numbers... There was nothing for it... He began counting aloud: “One…Two…Three…Four…”
At “five” her furrowed brow reversed. Her eyes opened wide, snorting nostrils flaring with a suspicion of understanding. With a grunt she released him... He was obviously an idiot. And everyone knew that idiots were generally harmless... Mayhap maths wouldn’t be Jak’s undoing after all!
It almost was though. If Jak hadn’t put his hands on his knees to draw a breath, he’d never have breathed again. A scimitar whistled through the air where his throat had been a second before clanging against the open door bars.
The ogre leapt on the attacking reaver with a fierce growl, riding him to the ground, and elbowing Jak aside in the process. He hit the back of his head on the iron- barred door, which swung fully open thrumming against the side of the wagon. A stunned mullet, Jak slumped onto his backside against the spoked rim of the wagon wheel.
When his eyes could focus again, he saw the ogress was astride the slaver throttling his seemingly skinny neck. The slaver’s eyes bulged grotesquely, about to burst, but just then a second slaver charged in and hacked deep into the ogress’ back. She squealed in pain, but held her grip. Jak got to his knees, drawing as he lunged forward, his blade whipping out to get under the next strike. At the shock of contact, he lost his grip on his hilt, but continued his lunge, stretching his arms wide to tackle the slaver around the shoulders.
Pinning the man’s arms to his sides, his inkite training kicked in. He hooked his right foot between the reaver’s legs, tripping him onto his back. His foe’s head crashed into the corner of the wagon on the way down. In a flash. Jak had drawn his hunting knife and plunged it into the reaver’s heart. He rolled away to find the ogress was battling a third foe. It was a sword against bare hands and not going well. She was slowing. bleeding out from several new slashes, plus more profusely from the gaping wound in her back.
Jak leapt up out of the shadows, coming in low hacking into the reaver’s calf just above the top of his leather boots. He screamed in agony and the ogress was upon him, seizing him from behind. She had two hands around his head. Twisting, his twig neck broke with an almighty crack, leaving the slavers head lolling on a crazy angle. She released the limp corpse, then slumped to the ground a second afterwards.
Jak glanced about to check on Kuruk. He was safe. Erek had arrived - in high spirits apparently. He was leading four of the freed northroners in both a bawdy battle song and mopping up the remaining reavers. Kennison and Ox were also striding towards Kuruk and the other prisoners. He hoped Kuruk remembered in the heat of battle to tell them the story they’d concocted. He was technically supposed to have been a prisoner too...
At that moment the ogress groaned. Jak felt guilty. She’d fought well and could be about to lose her life after saving his... Her freedom had lasted scant seconds. It wasn’t fair, he sighed and knelt to check on her wounds and offer what comfort he could. It was a gruesome sight, sShe’d lost several fingers snatching at a sword.... However, most of her wounds were superficial, an inch deep at most...
Sadly, Jak was fairly sure that first strike was about to prove fatal. All sorts of awful fluids not just blood oozed out of her back. He knelt down and stroked her hair.
“Thank you” he told her in ogrish. Now his cowardly words returned... Her long arm snaked out and collared him. Again. Her eyes blazed and she drew him near with desperate strength.
“Kremaa,” she hissed. Promise. Vow. Oath. Swear. He nodded his understanding.
It was definitely the imperative form of the verb.
“Waapa” she added.
Unfortunately ogrish verbs were often vague and amorphous moistly defined by context. The verb could be “love”, “keep”, “honour” or just plain ol’ “good”. Lords and ladies, did she want to marry him? They'd only just met mere moments ago...
Anyways, he’d always assumed he’d marry within his own species… Although he really did admire her fighting spirit… Also, imagine how fantastically gigantic their offspring would be…But, on the other hand, she was way too old for him. The age gap would be embarrassing... Though it wouldn’t be for very long… It was all very confusing... Matters of the heart were currently beyond him.
He didn’t love her. She must know that. It would be a marriage of convenience only. And only momentary. If truth be told, apart from her outstanding size, he didn’t really find her physically attractive... She may well be, to be fair to her... He wondered if other ogres would be jealous?
He stopped stroking her hair while he sorted his feelings out.- it wouldn’t do to lead her on.
His thoughts were a whirl. Coming thick and fast. Though thicker than quicker. Should he kiss her? It would be his first - but her last... Ever. He reluctantly puckered up. Shock overcame the pain in her expression and she shoved him aside. Easily... So strong... He felt bad about being rebuffed now...
“Gurk,” she uttered. Boy. Yes. he was a boy. Had she thought him older before in the darkness? Rumours had it that ogres weren't blessed with the best eyesight. It was a blessing for Jak though. She probably wouldn't have leapt to his rescue if she hadn't found him so stunningly attractive... Apparently she didn't now though. Jak was a little wounded... He would have had words but she was a lot more wounded and got that way protecting him.
"“Gurk,” she repeated.
Uh, what? He put it all together... It was only three words...
Promise. Love/honour/keep/good. Boy. Hmm, Promise love boy... Promise keep boy... Promise honour boy... No, none of them made a lick of sense. Promise good boy. Sort of did. For most, just not for Jak.
Promise to be a good boy? She was concerned for his welfare? That was sweet. It was almost a shame the wedding was off… Promise to be a good boy?
Um, Jak was very reluctant to commit to that particular future. He had many plans and most of them centred around violently deposing a despotic emperor. Suppose that’s good as an outcome. In a means justifies the ends way it could be construed as good...
Her iron grip tightened on his collar. her eyes - quite soulful eyes, Jak noticed for the first time - pleaded at him. He couldn’t say “no”. So he said” yes”.
A cool relief flooded her features then a stillness settled upon her as the last of her lifeblood drained away. Jak started as a high keening wail began. He put a hand over his mouth, but it wasn't him. It was coming from above... It was coming from the cage. There was another one. A relation most probably...
A lot shorter than the ogress. Different somehow, rounder, more boulder-like. Oh, it was a boy too... Oh gods above, a boy! The final piece of the puzzle fell into place, clanking like the bars on the cage slamming shut.. But this time Jak was the one imprisoned, because foolishly he'd made a promise. All of a sudden it dawned on him just what he'd done. He'd adopted an ogre. Jak had sworn an oath...
Then their eyes met and even his sacred vow to a dying mother became irrelevant. Hollow whorls of aching loss assaulted him yet again. This boy was alone, abandoned and in agony. Which made him about as Wolf Clan as it got. The ogrish suddenly came much more naturally.
"Good boy," Jak beckoned. "Come with me, I'm your brother Jak. You are one of us. One of us... ”