The Thune lashed at them with a whip and ordered them more loudly, in heavily accented and hardly understandable Crimean. It wasn’t clear if the old couple spoke that language or not. Jispin eyed the huddled mass of humanity and gritted his teeth, then stood. He motioned to a large man nearby, one from a string that had come in with him, to help him with the bodies. The Thune yelled even more inarticulately and shook his whip at all four of them. With a shrug, few words, and a brief bit of pantomime, Jispin communicated the older pair didn’t have the strength, and that he and his friend would bury the dead if they were given a shovel, so the dogs wouldn’t eat them.
With a snarl of mixed acquiescence and displeasure, Jispin and the other villager were allowed to pick up one body between them, and carry it away from camp and given a shovel and a single guard.
“He’s not one of us, you Kurgen dog! Why should we dig him in?” hissed the villager as Jispin slowly dug. The guard watched a minute, then lost interest and looked away.
Pausing, Jispin finally replied. “They outnumber us. They will kill us to take our food, as you would kill them.”
The man did not move from his squat, but his face showed he recognized the truth of his revelation.
“Who?” asked Jispin.
“Jispin.” He resumed digging slowly. He scooped a rock the size of his head near Asen’s feet, then the next shovelful of dirt in the pile opposite the grave. “Be ready to hold your ropes across it,” he whispered very quietly, having to repeat himself a couple of times to get the message across without being heard. When the guard looked away, Jispin nodded, and seeing the ropes in place he struck a careful blow. Part of the rope was severed. Not enough to cut Asen free, but enough he’d be able to work it free later. Then he returned to digging as if nothing had happened.
They alternated digging, taking turns every few minutes. When the hole was nearly deep enough, Asen returned the favor and cut part of Jispin’s cords.
Jispin motioned to the guard, indicating that the digging was hard work, and they’d like a little extra food. The guard laughed. Asen grumbled. When the first body was under two feet of dirt and they’d retrieved the second, a new guard came to keep watch. Jipsin asked again, motioning to the one grave already dug, and saying they’d likely have several more by sundown. The only two still capable of digging were himself and Asen, and the dead stink unless the Thune dug the holes.
The new guard, an older man with a well-worn look about him, called to a friend to bring something, and tossed the two some flat bread and a large trout from the river, stiff and cold and raw.
Suddenly, Asen didn’t mind digging so much.
The second and third graves were dug uneventfully, but a few words were exchanged with the guard. They were expecting the army of three or four hundred Argentain soldiers that had been chasing them to arrive in two days, likely around sunset as slow as they were going. They’d be marching slowly into a larger force, a force with the sun at their backs. They’d be making predictable movements, as they always did. They had no horses. It would be a slaughter with much booty, and maybe so much food they’d all eat well. It was all very amusing, and life was good.
Jispin and Asen said nothing.
It was after mid-day by the time the third corpse was underground in the soft river-valley soil and they rejoined the slave cluster. They were thanked sincerely if not energetically by the other captives for their efforts. Taking a queue from Jispin, Asen merely said “We slaves have to stick together, or we’ll all die sooner rather than later.” His words were well taken, with silent nodding and approving looks on otherwise grim and tired faces.
That night the waning moon showed its final sliver time and again as low clouds scudded by. A few stars twinkled in the gaps, as merry as the villagers Jispin crouched with were miserable. He was on the outside of the group, exposed to the cold wind that was mercifully slow and fitful in lee of a line of yurts that formed a part of the encampment. He’d worked his bonds free while the others tried to sleep, and he kept his eyes peeled for any patterns to the guards and people’s movements.
He saw his chance: a guard turned away while a cloud blocked the moon’s dim light.
He rose slightly from his crouch and slipped silently into the even deeper shadows of a yurt. No one noticed. No noise could be heard from the slave huddle. He glided slowly and carefully along the wall, not quite brushing it, but as close to it as a gentle breeze. He slipped into a dark yurt and felt about carefully. Soon he had another layer of clothes, a blanket, and some food, and he stealthily exited the way he’d entered.
He crept toward the area where the horses were kept. Drawing his new knife, he moved from one animal to the next cutting their hobbles. In short order a hundred or more were free to move should they choose, but he was patting them gently and making soft sounds of comfort. He moved on to another section and did the same, before waiting for a passing shadow from a cloud to disappear into the night like a wraith.