They ground to a confused halt, billowing smoke obscuring then revealing the shattered caravan, the blood-soaked ground, the still bodies, and overturned wagons. Several of the wagons were blazing brightly, the snapping and popping of the flames the main sound in the scene before them, but behind that was the sound of weeping and faint cries of pain.
“God’s mercy,” Aaren whispered as they slowly rode forward.
Mira nodded mutely at his side. The sight brought back memories of the day her mother died and the horrible aftermath in the camp.
“What happened?” she asked, her voice as low as Aaren’s.
Horace surveyed the devastation with a soldier’s critical eye. “Bandits,” he muttered, “but more successful than the ones who attacked us.”
“Bandits with magic backing them up,” Elric added, pointing to a body that looked as though it had been struck by lightning.
They wound their way through the wagons, gazing mutely at the destruction around them. By common assent, they headed for the sounds of weeping. Emerging out of the smoke they beheld a terrible sight.
Here, in a circle of wagons, the caravan guards had made their last stand. Bodies lay everywhere in bloody confusion. Many of them were warrior maidens, their bodies twisted and torn by magic. Wounded guards were tending to those more seriously wounded than themselves, limping and cursing feebly as they moved about. A large-framed man in battered chain mail was sitting morosely on a broken chair, sword in hand, staring vacantly into space. His strong features were slack and dull as though he’d seen more than a mortal should. The appearance of the little group didn’t faze him or even seem to register. They dismounted stiffly and stood before him.
Jon knelt down by him and gently removed the sword from his hand.
“Hey,” he shook him slightly, “what happened here?”
The man twitched but gave no other sign.
Jon shook him harder. “Hey! Snap out of it!”
The man’s eyes darkened, he turned slowly to look at Jon.
“Leave me alone,” he finally managed. “Leave me alone and let me die.”
The six of them exchanged worried looks. None of the other people even seemed to notice them so they turned their attention back to the man in the chair.
Katrina knelt down by him and turned his head toward her with soft hands. “What’s your name?” she asked him.
He frowned at her in faint puzzlement.
“Your name,” she repeated gently. “What’s your name?”
“Who is in charge here?”
The question brought a bitter laugh. “I was. Until they attacked us and took my daughter.” He sobbed suddenly and buried his face in his hands. “Illene! My poor little Illene!” He rocked back and forth, crying loudly.
Katrina hesitated uncertainly then got up, leaving him to mourn alone. Jon got up too and they moved a little aside, huddling together with their friends.
Aaren was grim. “It’s pretty clear what happened here. Bandits killed almost everyone, stole whatever cargo they could carry then took the women back to their hideout.”
Jon shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“What are you talking about?” Mira demanded. “Look at this place!” She waved an arm at the destruction around them.
Jon nodded. “I see it. But I can also see about a dozen necklaces from right here; diamond necklaces, just laying on the ground in plain sight.” He pointed to a nearby wagon that was laying on its side. Spilling out of the ripped canvas was an ornate box that had broken open, spilling a glittering pile of necklaces on the ground. Identical boxes lay scattered around it and more could be seen inside the wagon.
“What in the world?” Horace said in a puzzled voice.
The rest of them echoed his sentiments.
Jon shrugged. “It’s hard to say,” he admitted, “but it looks like whoever attacked wasn’t interested in the cargo. And since Marak said they took his daughter, maybe it was the women they were after.” He pointed at a trail of hoof prints leading west.
“But why?” Katrina demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“It wasn’t the women, it was only my daughter,” Marak’s voice said from behind them.
They turned and stared at the beefy caravan master. He had gotten to his feet and joined them unobtrusively. He was built much like Horace but carried more fat. “Only my daughter,” he repeated.
“How do you know that?” Aaren asked respectfully.
“Because they slaughtered all her warrior-maids getting to her!” Marak thundered. He turned and pointed at a pile of bodies on the other side of the circled wagons.
Mira crossed over to the bodies and knelt beside them. After a brief examination, she rose and rejoined her friends, her eyes steely. “He’s right,” she said tightly. “Everyone of them was pierced through the heart after they fell.” Her voice softened as she turned to Marak. “Why did they want Illene? What was so special about her over the warrior-maids?”
His features sagged and he rubbed his face absently. “I’m not entirely sure.” He started to say more then hesitated.
“Go on,” she urged.
“Well, she was a virgin,” he finally said. “Twenty summers old. She was born on Midsummer at exactly mid-day. The sage said it was a mighty portent.”
Aaren exchanged a knowing glance with Elric. “A twenty-year-old virgin who was born on Midsummer at noon.” He shook his head slowly. “There can’t be more than one or two people like that in the whole world.”
Elric nodded agreement. “A person like that, male or female, would release tremendous amounts of power if they were properly sacrificed.”
Marak paled at his words, swaying like a man in a high wind. He clutched at them. “Please, please get her back for me! I’ll pay you anything you ask, anything!” He straightened and strode over to the spilled jewelry that Jon had noticed earlier. He ripped open another box, it too was stuffed with glittering gems. He thrust it out. “One of these boxes for each of you, two boxes, three if you want. But please get her back, please,” he begged them.
The six of them looked at each other silently, then as one, they mounted their horses. Aaren looked down at Marak and spoke for all of them. “Rest easy good Marak, your daughter will be returned to you alive and well – so say the Knights of Gaia!”
They turned and thundered away.