Part 4 of 8 – 1300 Words
This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
The evening’s revelry had tapered off. The dancing was done, and the fire had burned low with what was left of Berard’s bones charred among the embers. The Lupekin lounged in slung hammocks clustered around the few trees that grew from the small isle in the black water of Umbra Morass. Only a pair of the wolfmen remained at the fire. One of them only had his left ear and the other has a scar that had cleft his lips revealing one snaggletooth. They sat across from Ambroys talking together in their low gruff voices and sharing what smelled like moonshine from a skin. The wetness of it gave a rapacious shine to their thin lips. Here and there, their eyes would rove lecherously over Ambroys making his skin crawl.
He blinked away the discomfort. The throbbing in his head had finally begun to subside allowing his mind to clear for the first time. He was not about to waste this window before his growing dehydration muddled his thoughts again. Focus. Those are the guards. The others will be asleep soon, leaving only these two to content with.
Ambroys stole a side glance at the pair trying to size them up. He knew their type. Overconfident and lax. They would lose interest and doze not too long after the others were snoring with the frogs. One of the Lupekin passed the skin to the other as he stifled a yawn. Ambroys fought his own wolfish grin. Soldiers were soldiers no matter the army and he had seen this type of soldier before. Hells he had nearly been like them, would have been like them if Ozzen, the old bear, hadn’t beaten discipline into him. This would be too easy.
The night waxed on. The moon was full, but the sky was clouded over allowing only the intermittent beam of moonlight to pierce the swamp’s viscous gloom. Ambroys swatted a mosquito on the sweat soaked nape of his neck and grumbled to himself. The crooks of his elbows were burning with bites and he had lost ten pounds in sweat to the sauna heat that still blanketed the Morass. What sweat he lost, his clothing found and chaffed his sodden flesh. Worse, his headache was back. What a hell hole.
How did they stand it? He glanced warily around the camp. At the edge of the firelight, a dozen or so Lupekin snored free of all consternation in their hammocks. One yipped quietly in his sleep, like a dog dreaming of the chase. Ambroys’s lip curled into a snarl, his mind a nebulous mass of murderous wishes.
At least the other two are coming along. The Lupekin guards had nearly finished their skin and were looking bleary-eyed. Their speech grew slurred and was punctuated by yawns of increasing frequency. Soon. It’s almost time.
The thought no sooner entered Ambroys’s mind than one of the guards, Snaggletooth, stood. He patted his companion on the shoulder and barked something in their tongue as he made a motion toward the Morass with his snout. Then he shuffled off, already laboring to unlace his trouser fly as he stepped beyond the edge of the light and into the inky shadows. He did not return.
Ambroys noticed the unusual length of the Snaggletooth’s absence before Left Ear. Ha! Bastard probably passed out in the slough and drowned! A smirk spread across his face as a painfully slow look of concern blossomed on Left Ear’s drunken features. The wolfman staggered to his feet, paused to steady himself and then stumbled off in the direction of Snaggletooth without so much as a glance back at Ambroys laying quietly on the other side of the fire.
Now! Ambroys pulled his knees to his chest and began tugging at the knots that bound the thick hemp cordage around his legs. Shit! It’s no use. Sodden with sweat and swamp water, the rope had swelled so that there was no longer any space between strand and bight. His bindings were stuck fast and would have to be cut off. He pushed himself to his knees and spun his gaze around the camp, hunting for something, anything with a cutting edge. The Lupekin slept in their clothes with their knives on their belts. He could not risk waking up the camp by struggling for one of those.
Damn! He was running out of time. Any second now, Left Ear would either come back or call out and wake the whole damn pack. Ambroys’s pulse roared in his ears and sweat ran in rivers down his face stinging his eyes all while his pounding headache crushed inside his skull. He wanted to scream.
There! At the edge of the camp, under one of the hammocks, jutted a thin rock worn sharp by time and chance. Oh, Ruvest, you beautiful, armored bastard! I swear I’ll light a candle at your shrine for this! Ambroys wriggled his way toward the rock with all the speed his could risk. Furiously, he rasped the rope across the sawing, stone edge. The sodden strands began to split. Ambroys rubbed faster trying desperately not to pant for fear that it would rouse the snoring Lupekin that slumbered inches from his head.
The final strand snapped, freeing his ankles. Ambroys could have shouted for joy but, before he could even climb to his feet, a scream arose from the blackness of the Morass and was suddenly silenced. Ambroys dropped to the fetal position and pretended to have been asleep as the rest of camp jerked into instant alertness. As the pack scrambled from their hammocks, the Lupekin above Ambroys dropped down on top of him, stumbled to regain her balance, and then kicked him as she swore.
Volk took charge of the rabble. With a few short barks, he sent two of the wolfmen to investigate the scream and the others he set in circle around the camp. Blades were drawn, ears twitched, and more than one among them sniffed the air. The swamp hung thick with coiled tension as they waited long dragging seconds for some report or sign from the hunters.
Ambroys wormed his way toward the edge of the firelight, trying to keep his ankles together and praying that no one noticed they were no longer bound. He made creeping progress heading for the swamp in the opposite direction of scream. As he reached the limit of where he could slink without the aid of a distraction, he paused, forced his breathing to slow, and waited. The returning hunters would draw the pack’s attention long enough for him to slink off into the night. He just had to be patient a moment longer.
A severed Lupekin head arced up out of the gloom and over Ambroys. It hit the ground and rolled to a stop near the fire, its dead eyes staring back at him. His own eyes widened. It had been one of the hunters. As one, the pack had turned to watch the head fly in from the dark and come to rest in their midst. A rumble of panic rolled through the mob. Eyes that showed too much white to feign aplomb swiveled from the severed head to Volk.
Volk licked his snout and cast an appraising look around the pack. His grip tightened on the worn bone handle of his own notched blade. As he lifted it to point at the gathered pack and speak, a bloodcurdling scream split the stagnant night air. Ambroys snapped his head toward the source just in time to see the Lupekin who had stepped on him pulled off her feet and sucked into the impenetrable darkness beyond the firelight. Her cry was cut short by a gurgle and flecks of blood spattered the soil just inside the ring of light.
With a collective enraged howl, the Lupekin pack charged towards their fallen comrade and into the hungry darkness. As they surged in one direction, Ambroys leapt to his feet and sprinted in the other.
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