The Thune were dragging the third man to death when one on Jispin’s string, an older man whom had started the morning with a barely perceptible limp which had gotten steadily worse, was slowing down. It was causing a struggle by others in the string trying to help him along. He was the patriarch of a family, he guessed, with family on his slave-string. He’d also get them all killed if they didn’t cut him off soon. They were not able to get ahead to gain time to drink at streams. No water would mean certain death on a run of this distance. He guided the string near one of the guards riding nearest.
He signaled to the guard. “He’s about to drop. Get ready to cut us free of his weight.”
The raider regarded him silently. He was one who’d helped subdue the vicious cub, and would wear the scratches for weeks to show for it. He understood what he was being asked to do, but wondered exactly what Jispin meant. He fell back and drew slowly closer, hand on his saber’s hilt.
“So others may live,” Jispin said in a raspy voice, then tripped the old man. As the elder fell, Jispin grabbed the leather rope keeping him with the string and held it up.
The Thune slashed it, and with a looping swing brought the point down to thrust as he leaned over in the saddle to end the old man’s life before he’d even stopped bouncing and rolling. The rest of the string sent up a brief wail of grief with the little bit of breath they could spare. They glared at Jispin, but none of them stumbled or fell along with him.
He mentally shrugged and kept running. He’d had no choice.
They managed to get ahead enough by the next little creek they passed to get a good drink.
The number of captives was already down by a third, and it was barely mid-morning.
The Thune raiders laughed at them, eating from their saddle bags as they rode, pretending to offer them food before eating it themselves with a cruel glee. Jispin understood. He’d seen some of his own people do the same with captives. He’d heard of it done to them, too. His father wouldn’t, he didn’t think. He’d just kill those who needed killing.
The strong survived to rule the weak. The way of the world.
He ran on.
As another showed signs of imminent collapse – a recent mother still recovering from childbirth, her baby impaled back at the village as a waste of time – he guided the group near the same rider as before, signaled up to him, and gave her a nudge to make her tumble. Another necessary sacrifice was needed before the next steam, when he’d been forced to take out a boy only a few years younger than himself, a boy who was trying his best but was scrawny and failing fast.
Around noon they crossed a larger river. Not the Tehomic, but deep enough they’d have to swim. Thune horses plunged in, barely slowing from a trot to a walk. Everyone would have a chance to drink.
But a new problem emerged: none of the captives appeared to know how to swim, and looked to fall into total panic at the thought of going into water that might rise above their waist.
Gods! What terrified weaklings these village-folk were! Granted, they were exhausted and already terrified out of their minds from the raid, slaughter, and now the cruel run. But it was just water. Slow and wide, and not more than shoulder deep, but cold, black, and with a slippery bottom. Half the remaining strings of slaves didn’t make it across, panicking and drowning as a group.
The Thune recovered the ropes they’d tied them up with. They had value, unlike dead slaves.
All of the remaining six members of Jispin’s string made it, with the young Kurgen man providing a steadfast cool head and strong hand to help guide them across, even getting them to drink deeply in spite of their fears. All the other surviving string lost at least one member, all but one of those lost being shorter women. Deep water and small stature among panicked men was a bad combination.
They emerged from the far side less muddy than they’d went in, but soaked to the bone and deeply chilled.
They ran on.
In another hour, they were warmed but still sodden, now with sweat and rain, rain which threatened to turn to snow.
Near nightfall they joined up with a Thune encampment on the Tehomic, nearly a thousand men and nearly as many families. There were only thirteen surviving villagers still staggering along with Jispin: the six with him, who had not been given the chance to support the weaker members because Jispin had taken them out of the string, and three more in each of two strings who’d seen his actions, understood it, and followed suit before they been to exhausted by trying to keep everyone in their string alive until it was too late. None of them could look anyone else in the eye for what they’d done. They were alive, but they did like the price they’d put on their souls to do it.
They wolfed down the meager morsels of food they were thrown, and all huddled together for warmth through the chilly night, packed into a single huddle with another two-score terrified slaves other groups had brought in the day before.
By morning another three had died, found stiff and cold in the predawn light.
The mass of slaves were thrown scraps of food to fight over. The guards were well-armed, alert, and not few in number. Jispin saw no openings, but even if he’d see one, the huddled mas of humanity around him was far too dispirited and beaten down to rise up as one with him. He’d be surprised if more than a small handful were prepared for a fight in any way at all.
Jispin got his share the hard way, with quick eye, a few well-thrown blows, and fast hand. The motley crew had barely finished squabbling when another trio of Thune came over and brusquely ordered a pair of slaves, an old man and his wife who’d been there when Jispin arrived, to drag the bodies away before they started to stink. Nobody moved. The two elders looked as though they likely couldn’t.