The following is a short story I wrote a while back with the intention of it being the first of many short stories set in a new fantasy world that would eventually come together and lead into a larger novel. Plans changed, the other short stories never got made, but I’m still quite proud of the one I did write and would like to share it here.
Tale of a Deserter
by P.F. Davids
The deserter forced himself to press on, knowing that if he stopped to rest even for a moment he might never get back up. One step after another, legs burning, stomach panging with hunger, throat bone dry, he slowly made his way through the flatlands. His focus was fixed on an outline in the distance, what he could only hope was a town, or at least a village. He dared not look behind him. Though he had left it behind weeks ago, he feared if he turned around he would still see the imperial stronghold, its massive towers looming over him and watching his pathetic attempt to flee.
He was an Emperor’s man down to his very core. When the call came out for volunteers to cross the Black Sea and take this land for Ambrosen Empire, land that the Emperor was rightly due by marriage, Colin had been on one of the first ships. He had been full of righteous vigor back then, ready to bleed the usurpers who dared question the Emperor’s claim, and bleed himself if it came down to it.
So what if he had accepted a few bribes? So what if he had turned a blind eye a few times when weapons and equipment went missing? Did he really deserve to be executed? Did all of his years of service really mean nothing?
Colin had been left with no choice. He fled the first chance he got. If he had stayed and faced trial, he would have undoubtedly been hung. He had thought he would find sanctuary in a village in the flatlands but instead only found ruins. Safe behind the walls of the stronghold, he had never realized the amount of devastation the war had brought. He had been wandering for weeks and his supplies had long since dwindled to nothing.
A cold wind hit him with its full force and he brought his coat tighter around him. It was the final days of autumn; soon the flatlands would be covered in the white blanket of winter. If he could somehow avoid dying of thirst and hunger, he might yet live to freeze to death.
Not how I ever imagined myself dying, he thought. I thought I would be cut down on the battlefield. Or take a knife in the gut from a prostitute.
He finally reached the outskirts of the village. Or what had once been a village. The few homes and shacks that once made up the community all had their doors smashed open and had no doubt been looted clean. There was no sign of what had become of the inhabitants.
Colin briefly allowed himself to wonder whether this had been the work of the imperials or one of their enemies. Either way, the end result is the same. He shook off the thought and brought his focus back to his own survival.
In the center of the village he found a stone well. He whispered a small prayer to whatever gods might be listening as he lowered the bucket down into it. When he heard the splash he would have leaped for joy if he had any strength to do so. As it was, it took him all the strength he had left just to pull the bucket back up.
The cool water tasted better to him than the finest wine. After he drunk his fill, he soaked his rag and used it to wash off some of the grime from his travels. The rag bore the mark of the Ambrosen Empire, a shield emblazoned with the head of a lion. It had once served as his sash, an important symbol of his rank. Now it and his coat were his only mementos of his life as an officer.
He sat at the edge of the well and washed the rag clean again as he planned his next move. With his strength returning his future seemed a bit less bleak. He had water, and there might yet be food in one of these houses. It would be dark soon, so he would rest here for the night. In the morning he would pack up anything he could find and continue west. Eventually he would find civilization.
His imperial pride flared to the surface. There is nothing a man of the Empire can’t survive! Moments later, he squashed it down. Though you are no longer a man of the Empire. You are a deserter, a particularly cowardly one at that.
The chilled night air brought him out of his self-pity. He took shelter in the nearest home, a tiny dwelling of only one room that had served as both a living and sleeping area. Nothing remained of any furniture, so Colin just leaned back in a corner furthest from the door and covered himself with his coat. He fell asleep thinking of glories both past and imagined, and what kind of future a deserter possibly hope for.
Colin was awoken early in the morning by the sound of hoofbeats. As the world took form the noise was joined by the sounds of shouting and a creaking that Colin immediately recognized as an overburdened wagon or cart.
A merchant caravan passing through, perhaps? If they are not flying the imperial colors, I may be saved.
He groggily picked himself and stumbled towards the entrance of the home. He carefully peeked through the broken doorway. There was indeed a caravan passing through, but not of the kind of merchant he wanted to deal with.
A dozen small carts passed by, each pulled by a single horse. In each cart were two metal animal cages, most of them full, but not with animals. A broken-spirited collection of people occupied the cages, sitting or crouched in uncomfortable positions. Most of them seemed young, though there were a few well-built older men as well, the kind who would be good for labor. Alongside the carts a handful of armed men strolled.
Slavery was outlawed in the Empire. In fact, ending such barbarianism and bringing justice to savage lands was the Empire’s creed. His sudden sense of righteous indignation was quickly quelled by his fear of discovery. Slavers had an obvious reason to hate imperials.
He was backing slowly away from the door when a voice caused him to stop dead in his tracks.
“Whoever is in there might as well come out now.”
There was no question that the commanding voice was directed at this house. Colin froze and panic started to set in. He was unarmed and outnumbered. There was nowhere to run. He would not be able to hide his imperial dress and accent. As soon as he stepped outside, he was as good as dead.
The voice called out again. “I’ll make you a deal. Come out now, and we won’t have to come in there and make things messy.”
Colin could only think of one plan. If he could not hide his imperial origins, he might as well use it to project authority. He was an officer, after all. Perhaps if he projected enough confidence, they would be hesitant to assault him.
He adjusted his coat, sorry state that it was, and ran his fingers through his brown hair. He stood as straight as he could muster and strode through the doorway while trying to ignore the hammering in his chest.
Outside, he was met by two rough looking men. Their dark hair and tanned skin gave them away as locals as much as his light skin gave him away as a foreigner. The one on the left looked very much the slaver type, tall and muscular with a face that might have been cut from stone, wearing rough cut leather. The other was shorter, about Colin’s height, and while his face was as rough as his partner’s, his manner of dress was completely different; he dressed entirely in silks in the manner of the wealthy merchant houses. The large man was armed with a sword, currently sheathed at his side, while the smaller one had a whip coiled around his shoulder.
Colin did his best to project an air of indifference. “What is it this early in the morning?”
The slavers regarded him curiously. The smaller one stepped forward. “What do we have here?” His voice was the same as the one that had called Colin out of hiding.
“Looks like an imperial, boss,” the larger one said.
“A damn grimy one at that.”
Colin stuck his head up high. “You should watch how you address an imperial officer. I am Captain Colin Worther, of the Ambrosen Military. And who might you be?”
The slaver boss smiled toothily. “I might be Alonzo, and I might be in charge of this little caravan.” He gestured to the carts and their burdens. “What do you think of that?”
Colin frowned. There was only one believable response. “Slavery is outlawed in the Empire.”
“Intend to arrest me?”
Colin was careful not to break eye contact with the slaver, lest he made himself appear weak. “Not my job. I am here to get the local lords in line with the Emperor. Let someone else clean up the slavers.”
Alonzo chuckled. “Guess we’d best move on before that man arrives, eh?”
The large man scratched at stubble of his jaw. “Know what I don’t get, boss? What’s an imperial captain doing all the way out here, all by his lonesome?”
“That’s a very good question, Nevio,” Alonzo replied. “Well, Captain?”
Colin attempted to keep the steely demeanor of an officer. “I was separated from my men in the fighting. I’ve been attempting to make my way back on my own, but it has been slow going.”
I might not be good at much, but I have always been skilled at lying.
Alonzo tsked. “Such a pity, that.”
“Dangerous to be traveling these parts alone,” added Nevio. “Even for an imperial.”
“My associate brings up a good point.” Alonzo smiled his toothy smile. “Perhaps you ought to travel with us a little while. Just till you meet up with your men, anyway.”
Colin narrowed his eyes. “By foot or in one of those cages?”
Alonzo laughed. “Well, there’s a smart man. Smart enough to come quietly, I think.”
“Threatening to take an imperial officer captive, that’s a serious offense,” Colin said bitingly.
Alonzo turned to his associate. “You know what I think, Nevio?”
“What’s that, boss?”
“I don’t think this he is an imperial officer at all.” Alonzo gave a grand gesture with his hand. “Notice his worn state, the way he carries he carries himself. All wrong for a officer. Why, I bet he stole that coat from a real captain.”
Nevio frowned. “Why, that would make him an impostor. And a thief.”
“It’s practically our civic duty to make sure he can’t keep going around impersonating a civil figure.”
Colin wondered how far he would make it if he burst into a sprint now. Probably not too far. He hadn’t eaten in days.
Alonzo grabbed at his whip with his right hand. “So then, Captain, what do you say? Will you come along peacefully?”
Colin did not slacken his posture. “Seems I have small choice in the matter. Know that when my men find me, though, you shall be made pay for this.”
“I shall look forward to it.”
He was brought to one of their carts. One cage was empty, ready to become his new home. As his captors pushed him towards it, his coat was ripped from him.
“You won’t be needing this anymore,” Alonzo said. “We shall find you something more appropriate to your new station to keep you warm, don’t worry.”
He was stuffed into the cage without ceremony and given a small, dirty blanket. Moments later the cart lurched forward as the slavers continued on their path.
Finally resigned to his fate, Colin leaned back and tried to find a comfortable position. There wasn’t any. Well, look on the bright side. At least I am alive. And maybe I’ll get sold to someone who treats their slaves well. That can’t be too much worse than military life, can it?
He glanced at the cage next to his. It contained a girl, just a couple years short of womanhood, with reddish-brown skin, almost the color of clay, and silky black hair. A tribal, a native to the lands south of the Empire. Like Colin she was a foreigner to this land, separated from her home by the Black Sea. He wondered what twist of fate had brought her so far just to end up a slave.
Well, at least I might have some company.
“Hello, there,” he called out to her, just loud enough to be heard over the wheels of the cart. She did not respond, or even react. She stared solemnly at the sky. “Hello?” Still nothing. “Hello, there, young miss, can you hear me?”
Finally, the girl turned to look at him. Colin smiled as disarmingly as he could manage. “Hello, my name is Colin. Colin Worther. What’s yours?”
The tribal girl did not respond. She just regarded him curiously.
Colin’s heart sank. “Do you have a name?” he called out. No response. “Do you speak?” Nothing. The girl probably only speaks some tribal language. She continued to watch him, her eyes now focused on his. Colin sighed. “Sorry to bother you. You can go back to your cloud watching.”
The aches and pains of his long journey were not being aided by the cramped condition of the cage. Not the first time since he deserted, he imagined how his life would have ended if he had not fled and thought that such a fate might not have been so bad after all.
I’d bet there would have been some ceremony to it. I was a captain, after all. You don’t hang one of those every day. I would have been in full uniform, of course. All of my men would have been in attendance. Those I treated poorly would laugh or cheer. The ones I showed favor to would declare my innocence. There would have been women there, too, mostly whores. Half the brothels in the city would turn out to see one of their best customers off.
I would have been allowed some last words, given my station. Maybe I would have come up with something clever, something funny to be remembered by. Or maybe I would have been silent, allowed myself to be remembered as the stoic type. Not give them the satisfaction of recognizing their accusations.
Most likely I’d just shat myself.
He noticed the tribal girl was still studying him. “What is it? Is there something on my face? Never seen an imperial before?” As he expected, no response.
He sighed again. “I guess it’s partly my fault, isn’t it? I had every opportunity to learn your language, years ago, that is.” She watched him curiously. For some reason, he decided to continue. “I come from a town on the southern edge of the Old Empire, right along a border shared with your people. We traded sometimes. Well, not me, but some of the local merchants. I used to run errands for them as a kid. One of the merchants always used to offer to bring me along, so I could learn your language and one day trade on my own. But I had decided early on I wanted to travel north and join the military, become a real hero of the Empire.” He banged on his cage with his fist. “Think I made the wrong call.”
She smiled at him. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was nice to hear a friendly voice, even if you couldn’t understand what was being said.
With nothing better to do, he spent the next few hours telling a girl who couldn’t understand him all about his life. His hometown and his childhood. His early days in the military. Promotions he didn’t deserve, received by taking credit for the accomplishments of others. Getting caught taking bribes and his eventual desertion.
It was almost nightfall by the time the caravan came to a stop. The carts were arranged in a neat line. While some of the slavers set up camp, Alonzo stepped in front of the cages with his whip in his hands.
“Most of you are familiar with the procedure by now, but for the new faces I will repeat the rules,” the slave master said. “We’re going to let you out, a few at a time. Go take a crap and piss if you need, then come stretch your muscles out so they don’t start to wither. Won’t be worth much if you are all weak. If you behave, do as you are told, there will be food waiting for you in your cage when you return. If you resist, cause problems, you go hungry tonight. You try to run, we will give you a thirty second head start. Then my associate is going to run you down, and you will die.” He gestured to a large figure atop a horse trotting along the outside of the camp. “Understood?”
Colin watched as one captive after another was let free of their cage. He tensed up as he waited his turn.
This is it. He tensed his hands into fists. No more cowardice. I’ve run from my duty. I ran from my due punishment. I allowed myself to be captured by slavers. I refuse to be a disgrace any longer. I’ll die here, fighting. His anger boiled. Maybe I can catch one of them off guard, grab a weapon, actually stand a chance.
He caught the eye of the tribal girl. She looked at him, as if she knew what he was planning, and shook her head. No. And just like that all of his resolve was gone. His anger cooled. He had no strength to fight.
Colin’s turn finally came, and he did not resist.
They were traveling north. Colin could tell that much from the way the sun rose and set. Beyond that, he was completely lost. The flatlands had given way to rolling green hills a couple days back. He wished he had spent more time studying the maps of the region.
He tried to make up for it now by studying his captors with particular care. Alonzo was obviously the leader. When he spoke, the others snapped into action. It was more than just obedience to an employer. It was fear. Colin had seen a similar reaction among the soldiers serving a commander with a reputation for sending men he didn’t like to the front line.
Then there were the enforcers. In addition to Nevio, there was a squat man with giant shoulders named Pidge, and the horseman, Rote. They kept everyone in line, both slaves and slavers alike.
There were six others working with them, all of them young locals. While the enforcers were armed with swords, the rest were armed with an assortment of clubs and knives. Must be hard for a kid in this land to make a wage right now. They either allow themselves to be pressed into the war, or strike out with an unseemly lot such as this. He doubted any of them had much experience actually using their makeshift arms. If he could catch one of them alone, he might be able to get his hands on a weapon.
They stopped for the night and began the usual routine. Colin watched as the first captives were released and led away. The slavers moved with their usual efficiency. He couldn’t pick out anyone who seemed to be slacking or vulnerable. Guess I won’t be making my move tonight, either.
It was Pidge who let him out of his cage tonight. He was the nastiest of the whole lot, with a head half bald and scars all over his face. Somehow, he managed to smell consistently worse than the captives.
Colin stretched out his limbs and worked his muscles. After the stiffness faded he would begin his exercise routine, which involved lifting whatever heavy objects he could find. The slavers were all too eager to use the free labor when setting up camp, and Alonzo actively encouraged his captives to keep their strength up. Colin had not given up hope that one day soon his opportunity would come, and he wanted to be in top form for it. Funny, I am probably in better shape now as a captive than I have been for the last few years of my military life.
As he stretched, Pidge was freeing his cart-mate. The tribal girl still had not responded to anything Colin said, or even shown that she understood any of it. Still, he had grown fond of the girl who always seemed to listening to him with such intent. So it angered him every time Pidge used helping the girl out of her cage as an excuse to fondle her body. Today he was being particularly aggressive, continuing to grip her chest even after she was down from the cart and on her feet.
“Perhaps you and I should go find a quiet spot to be alone, eh?” Pidge said to her. “I know you have been wanting it. I can feel your heart race every time I touch you.”
Without thinking, Colin rushed up to them. He only just stopped himself from tackling the slaver, realizing what that would lead to.
Pidge looked at him, annoyed. “What do you want, imperial?”
Colin had to think on his feet. “Alonzo wouldn’t like it if you damaged the merchandise.”
Colin gestured to the girl. “She’s exotic, and young. She is going to worth a fortune to the right fleshpeddler. But if she isn’t pure, that’s going to cut her value in half.”
Pidge growled. “Stay out of this, this is between me and -”
He heard the sound of a loud crack and felt the air split just inches from his head before he registered what had happened. Pidge went to ground, clutching at his face. The girl was pushed away from him; she stumbled and fell.
Alonzo stepped beside Colin, his whip drawn. He glared down at Pidge.
“Were you trying to steal from me?” The evenness in his voice made Colin uneasy. “Well?”
Still clutching his face, Pidge cried, “No, boss, never!”
“Damaging my property, reducing its value. Is that not the same as stealing?” He glanced at Colin. “Perhaps I aught to put you in his cage, and let him take your place. At least he seems to understand this business.” He smiled toothily at Colin. “What do you say, Captain? Want to join our merry band?”
Pidge looked up in horror. Colin finally understood why everyone feared Alonzo.
There is no way this is a serious offer. He is mocking me to get a rise out of Pidge. Though if it is a serious offer … this could be my chance. I could escape during the night.
“I would rather die,” he said instead.
Damn imperial pride.
Alonzo tsked. “That’s a shame. Looks like you still work for me, Pidge. I catch you trying something like that again, though, you will wind up in a cage.”
Pidge pulled himself to his feet and cursed as he turned his backs on them to resume his duties. Alonzo patted Colin on the shoulder, as if they were old friends, and then followed.
Colin helped the girl back to her feet. She had hit her head when she fell and had cut her forehead. It wasn’t a terrible cut, but it was bleeding and should be covered. Colin pulled out his rag that had once been his military sash. It was still mostly clean. He told her to be still; whether she understood or not she complied. He tied the rag around her head. It was just long enough to do the job.
“There we go,” Colin said as he admired his handiwork. “You’re flying imperial colors, now. Do them proud.”
She smiled at him. He smiled back.
I’m going to find a way to escape. And I am going to take her with me.
It would be another week before the opportunity would come. Occasional patches of trees became more frequent until they were traveling in a full fledged forest. The carts had to travel in a single line to traverse the narrow road. But it wouldn’t be Colin’s idea to escape that night.
As Colin hugged himself against the cold of the first days of winter, clutching his filthy blanket with all his might, he heard an unfamiliar voice say one word. “Tonight.”
He looked around, trying to find the source of the voice. It was just him and the tribal girl on the cart. She was not looking at him. Am I hearing things?
“Did you – did you say something?”
The girl spoke without looking in his direction. “Tonight they will have no choice but to set up camp in the woods. Their horses can not follow us between the trees. It will be our best chance.”
Colin was so stunned that she was speaking that it completely overshadowed the importance of her words. “You can speak – this entire time you could understand me?” He thought with embarrassment about all the personal details of his life he had shared. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“There is a saying – ‘You learn more from listening than speaking.’ I have learned much about you.”
Her voice was completely different from what Colin imagined it would be like if she could speak. Colin had seen her a child that needed protecting. Instead she sounded mature and confident, absolutely in control of her situation.
Colin feigned a smile. “I seem to be at quite a bit of a disadvantage, then. I know nothing about you.”
“I can lead us through the woods so that we can’t be tracked. I have decided your experience could help me if we have to fight. That is all you need to know of me.”
“I suppose.” Colin held up his hands, pleadingly. “Can I at least get the name of the person I might be dying alongside tonight?”
There was a pause. “I am called Silver Wolf.”
“Silver, huh?” Colin mulled that over. Hardly seemed fitting. “So what’s the plan, Silver? We make a break for it when they aren’t looking?”
“The moment we are both free. If we wait, they might notice us behaving strangely.” She finally turned to look at him. “Here.”
She passed something through the bars of her cage and into his. Colin picked it up. It was stone, just smaller than Colin’s hand. One edge was smooth, the other curved into a wicked point. With enough force it could inflict some serious damage.
“Better than nothing,” Colin said.
Silver nodded, then turned away. Colin pocketed the stone and tried to suppress a smile at the thought of smacking Alonzo right in the face with it.
Tonight I just might get the chance.
Their escape attempt happened rapidly and caught the slavers off-guard. Pidge no longer came around to let them out of their cages. Tonight it was Nevio. Colin was released first. He stayed close by, willing himself not to reach into his pocket to feel the stone. His heart was racing. He hoped it didn’t show. Silver was released shortly after. She stepped down from the cart and took a few steps away, acting as if everything was normal.
She and Colin locked eyes. Then they were both running.
Nevio was quicker than he looked for a man that size. He was in front of them in an instant, making a grab for Silver. She jumped out of the way and he grabbed nothing but air. He turned and spotted Colin, his hand reaching for his sword.
Colin burst into a dash to meet him. He grabbed Nevio’s swordarm with one hand, keeping him from fully unsheathing it. With the other he reached into his pocket. Nevio was strong, even with all of Colin’s heavy lifting he could barely keep a hold on the man. His fingers touched the smooth side of the stone. He grabbed it in his fist and swung it with all his force at the slaver’s face. There was a crunch and Nevio’s swordarm slacked. Colin grabbed the sword and unsheathed it. Nevio stumbled back, clutching at the fresh gash in his face.
One of the young slavers came at Colin with his club. Colin’s military training came back to him surprisingly quickly. The poor boy was cut quickly down the middle.
More were coming. He saw Rote coming down the road on his horse. Somewhere, Pidge was shouting curses. Colin dashed off the road and into the woods.
He ran with all the speed his legs would let him, but they were stiff and threatened to buckle on him. Branches scratched at his face and arms. His chest burned with the exertion. He had no idea where Silver was.
When he thought he was safe he stopped to catch his breath. A loud crack soon told him this was a bad idea. His world was replaced with one of blinding pain. He realized he was on the ground. The stolen sword was lost from his grip.
Alonzo stood over him, whip in hand. He tsked. “I feel like I am a generous man, Captain. I let you live, despite being an imperial. I feed you, ensure you are warm. And this is my payment? You made me lose my most valuable cargo. How ungrateful.”
Colin tried to get to his feet. Alonzo knocked him back to the ground with a swift kick.
“No, no. You are not going anywhere, Captain. You and I are going to have a long talk about gratitude and -”
He was struck from behind and knocked to the ground. Silver stood there, carrying a large branch. She grabbed Colin and pulled him to his feet.
Taking Colin by the arm, she led them deeper into the woods. It was all he could do to keep up her. At first he heard the sound of Alonzo shouting and chasing after them, but soon those faded away.
The morning sun was in the sky before they finally stopped. Silver led to a small stream. Colin dropped to his knees and drank greedily.
“We can rest here for a few hours,” Silver said. “Get some sleep. After, we have much to do.”
Rest sounded great. Much to do did not.
“What did you have mind?” he asked, wearily.
Silver’s expression was unreadable. “We have to fashion some weapons. The forest provides us all the material we could need. If you wish, we may backtrack and retrieve the sword you dropped. Once we are armed, we will track the slavers. When the chance comes, we will free the others.”
Colin plopped down against a tree. His eyelids were heavy but his mind was racing. Good way to get ourselves killed, right after we just earned our lives back. I should tell her I’m not interested.
“Sounds like fun,” he said instead.
He laughed and looked up at the morning sky. Colin Worther. Imperial captain. Deserter. Captive. Now, freer of slaves.
Silver sat and leaned up against him. Her warmth was inviting against the bitter cold.
Well, there are worse fates, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.