The sun was up but the clouds were thick and the air had cooled dramatically. With the subtle weather change, it had shifted to give the impression of a damp, miserable winter’s day. Thrax had been on the move now for most of the morning and the route he had taken was far from easy. The path he continued along was more a goat trail but it did follow a quick winding route through the mountain range and to the valley floor below. The ground beneath his feet was damp and overgrown but luckily there was little mud to slip on, though in places it wasn’t always easy to work out where the trail ended and the undergrowth continued. The path through the mountains was sheltered in places from the elements by thick woodlands. At one point, he had passed two ruined houses, both old stone structures with little left of them other than low walls and their foundations. A large oak tree had pushed up right though the middle of one of them, the low walls looking more like barriers to protect the trees than the homes or farms that may have been in the past. They had been in this state since he could remember and they could have been that way for a hundred years.
Thrax wore the same travelling garb that he always had. Simple but sturdy jacket and trousers well covered with what, could only be described as a travelling coat. It was dark brown and hung low over his legs. The material was light but weatherproof and perfect for hiding the array of items he kept about his body. He carried a lot of gear, most of it strapped carefully to his framed backpack so that his front remained clear of obstructions. He had travelled the route on many occasions when heading to the North, but in the last few years had spent most of his time in his mountainside home or making the short journey to the busier trading posts and towns in the South. At some point in the past the track looked as though it was paved, but little of this now remained with many of the stones being washed away and undergrowth covering the path. From memory he knew this was one of the many trails that led down to the old road. He went from the narrow trail into an open area that was flat and moved off along the side of the mountainside. Few now knew this route but Thrax found out from some of the traders years ago that it was all that remained of an old mountain road system. Though it was broken and overgrown, it did offer a quicker route than through the craggy trail of the mountainside and it was far more direct. It wasn’t as fast as taking the steam belching metal machine on its tracks but it was the next best thing. He paused for a moment and sat at the side to check his map and take a few sips of water. His map fitted carefully inside a leather pouch and was handmade. He had put it together over the years and it contained details that only those who travelled the local roads and trails would ever know about.
As he studied the map, he caught sight of something on the road. As he looked more carefully he noticed that parts of the vegetation had been worn away, and recently too. Leaving his gear on the ground, he walked over and examined the area where the road could be seen clearly. Looking ahead the worn away vegetation followed a line into the distance.
“Interesting, tracks from rubber on wheels,” he said quietly to himself as he examined the markings.
Somebody had used it recently and not on foot, this was a wheeled vehicle, and based upon the amount it had cleared as it travelled, it must be substantial and heavy. Even more important was that one vehicle making a single trip could not realistically make this kind of damage. It must have been from a large number of them or had been made by repeated trips in the last few days. As interesting as this new discovery was though he had no time to waste. With the train already gone, and Synne and Jonas missing, he could only assume they had followed the train to whatever the Raiders had been working on that required such numbers of people. He could see no other reason why they would have sneaked off in the dead of the night.
He could have left them there, but Synne was the daughter of his old friend Galan and though there had been enmity between them in the end, he knew deep down that it was others who had created the rift. He intended on healing it and Synne was the vessel by which he would do it. With the map laid out in front of him, he traced the route above his home that led to the North. Based on the last trading runs he had made, there were at least three old trading posts situated between ten and fifty miles north. Last time he had travelled to the furthest one, it was deserted. Presumably overrun by Raiders, during one of their many murderous attacks. There were rumours even then that something was gathering in the North, well away from normal paths and deep inside the dangerous areas of the Wastelands. He wondered to himself if the closer outposts had suffered a similar fate or if they even existed anymore. With the train now being used, all manner of outcomes were possible and he had seen for months the train making its regular progress back and for along the track. The sun was directly above him, clearly indicating that half of the day had already gone. According to his map, he was only a quarter the way to the nearest outpost. He removed the lid from his flask and took two sips before replacing it.
“I need to quicken the pace,” he said to himself.
He stood back up and tightened his straps on his backpack. Attached to the side of the bag was the sword that Synne had been so enthralled by. On him, it still looked impressive, though not protected by a thin leather sheath that covered the entire blade up to the parrying hooks. On the back of the pack was a small metal crossbow. It was smaller than the usual weapons and parts of it folded down to make it easier to travel with, and held down by three buckles and heavy straps, to hold it on tightly. That wasn’t everything though, he also carried a large knife on his side, neatly pushed inside a hardened leather sheath. It was almost a foot long and was sharp along one edge and a few inches along the back of the clipped tip, the perfect utility and fighting knife. As always, in his right hand was the heavy looking staff that he had used to help fight off the band of Raiders when Synne and Jonas had arrived. With his gear ready, he turned north and continued along the long abandoned road and whatever mysteries awaited him.
* * *
Synne and Jonas had hidden themselves near the wheels of the last wagon that was being pulled behind the great machine. From where they were positioned the racket from the tracks and wheels was noisy, but they were well hidden from view and making quick progress along the tracks. The mountains were already moving away behind them and the rolling hills and fields of the Wastelands seemed surprisingly healthy. They had passed several small villages but nothing substantial yet, though there were people going about their business on both foot and horseback as they made their way along the dirt tracks of the land. It was already late in the day, the lighting was provided by torches burning outside most of the major buildings. Several of the riders carried lanterns that made them look like glowing creatures gliding over the land. Synne had started to relax, when she spotted the lights from a band of a dozen horsemen riding towards them. Pulling herself close to the body of the wagon she breathed a sigh of relief as they approached the tracks and waited for the train to pass before crossing them and continuing along a trail. As they moved away, Synne noticed the markings and banners they carried.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
Jonas had been watching all the time and looked just as surprised.
“Yeah, I did. Is it me or did they look like a party of riders from the Brotherhood?”
“Yeah, what are they doing in the Wastelands?” she asked rhetorically.
The group of riders continued off to the right, leaving a great trail of dust behind them, as they raced off at a speed that almost matched that of the train they were travelling on. Jonas leaned out slightly so he could look ahead. As he was watching, he felt an arm on his shoulder yank him back into cover.
“What are you doing?” asked an angry Synne.
“Hey, I’m trying to look ahead.”
“Well, did you see anything?”
Jonas sat back down whilst he considered whatever it had been ahead.
“I only got a short look but there is a lot of black smoke at the end of the line going up to the sky. Looks like a bridge ahead that leads into a town or city of some kind. It isn’t easy to tell from here though, there isn’t much light.”
The screech from the machine’s whistle blasted out, presumably sending a signal it was approaching its destination. Almost as soon as the whistled blasted, the guards on the train started to move about. As the nearest guard went further ahead on the train, they were given a chance to get a better look around. Taking the opportunity Synne crept from the darkness and out onto the right side of the wagon. Peering inside she could see tools and barrels of liquid, though without opening one she had no idea of the actual contents.
Jonas climbed over the low wooden sidewall and into the wagon to get a better look.
“Any idea what’s in them?” asked Synne.
He couldn’t see very well in the dark wagon so he placed his hands on the barrel and leaned in to smell if there was any liquid on the lid. As he inhaled, he stepped back, the smell obviously being overpowering.
“It smells like oil of some kind, much stronger than normal though,” he said as he moved back.
“Interesting, it must be a fuel of some type, perhaps a more refined version of oil, perhaps like the fuel I have read about that the old engines used to use,” said Synne quietly to herself.
The two moved along to the end of the container section where a number of crates were stacked up. Looking through the small gap in the forward facing wall, they could see the rest from the train.
“I don’t see any passengers here, this looks like a materials or cargo transport to me,” said Jonas.
Synne nodded in agreement.
“Whatever they are doing up here it is substantial. You don’t need wagons of people, tools and fuel unless you’ve got some kind of major industry, we need to find out what’s going on and get news back to the League,” she explained.
The train was already starting to slow down and the number of people started to increase as they moved over a bridge adorned with lanterns. A few dozen people walked about, all carrying torches of one kind or another to light the way. It was a busier place than a town like Haven in the daytime and this was the middle of the night. With a series of squeals, the train slowed even more until they were moving no more than a walking pace.
“What’s the plan Synne?”
“Plan, yeah, that would be a good idea. Look, if we stay on the train they’ll catch us. I suggest we get off now and scout this place. Agree?”
Jonas nodded and the two of them leapt from the side of the train without a moment’s hesitation. Synne hit the grass first, followed by Jonas. As they rolled along the ground, they came to a stop and moved to the nearest bit of cover, a small grove of trees. As they waited in the darkness, Synne turned to Jonas.
“How is the shoulder doing?”
“Sore, I wouldn’t want to use it in a fight. I’ll live,” he said though Synne looked less than convinced.
She had seen similar wounds in the past when Ulric and his fighters had returned from battle. These kinds of wounds could quickly move from a small hole to an infection that could spread and lead to all kinds of complications. She was tempted to send him back but she needed him too much to consider asking. She also doubted he would return when they had a chance, however small, to be able to help the survivors from Haven. Right now, they needed information and they needed it fast.
From their position in the tree line, they looked out at the now halted train and the settlement they had arrived at. The bridge functioned almost like a fortified entrance, as across the bridge was a large wooden gate that extended out into a low perimeter palisade, not dissimilar to the wall running around Haven. Luckily, they were inside the settlement, otherwise they would have to try and find a way inside the place. Looking through the inside revealed a bizarre place. Off to the distance was a low hill on top of which was a recently erected fortified hall that featured its own palisade and towers. Between the two sets of walls were workshops and storage buildings from which people hauled the materials from the train. Several dirt roads ran through the settlement and out to another two fortified gates, one leading north and the other to the east.
“Look, is that what I think it is?” asked Jonas as he pointed to a series of rough looking wooden buildings to the west.
Synne strained her eyes but she couldn’t really see whatever it was that Jonas had identified.
“Look, there are carts on a small track going into that tunnel,” he said as he pointed.
“Ah, that explains it, a mine. What do you think they’re after?” she asked.
“Well, didn’t you say they were unloading a rock or something black at the trading post?”
“You’re right, it looked like coal. They must be operating a mine with forced labour and then shipping the raw materials back to the Trading Post to sell or trade for other items.”
“What are they doing with all this though?” asked Jonas.
“What about those buildings?” said Synne as she pointed to the buildings running in long columns around the fortress on the hill. “They look like military barracks to me.”
“Barracks, but they could hold hundreds of people,” said Jonas with a serious tone to his voice.
“Come on,” said Synne.
She slipped from out of the cover of the trees and followed the low stone wall that ran alongside one of the dirt roads leading to the fortified hall. They moved from building to building, always doing their utmost to stay in the shadows and away from the occasional guard that walked past. Off to the right, and away from the buildings, came a terrible smell and the sound of flies and other insects buzzing about. The two moved nearer to find the source of the smell but it was clearly coming from a large open space near the wall. As they moved closer they noticed a number of carts waiting to be hitched up to horses. On each wagon were numbers of cloths covering long shapes. Jonas moved to the nearest and pulled himself up onto the end of the cart. As it rocked a little an object swung out from under the cloths, it was a bruised arm. He jumped back and audibly gasped at the sight of the horror. Synne approached and examined the arm in more details.
“Dead, and for at least a few days. These must be the workers in the mine, don’t you think?” she asked.
Jonas turned away and with a gut wrenching groan, vomited onto the ground. He wiped his face and turned back.
“The bastards, do you think this is what they’ll do to our people?”
“Maybe, assuming they are even here. Come on!” she said as she moved off to the nearest building and back to the shadows and safety.
As they reached a position close to the wooden wall around the hall, a low building caught the attention of Jonas. He stopped and moved closer to the door though he had to be careful as there were two torches burning gently outside. As he slowly walked further along the shadows moved and a well-armed guard came out.
Jonas and Synne froze, hoping they wouldn’t be detected by the guard. Fortunately, the man appeared to be far more interested in drinking whatever was in his tankard to spot them. Synne and Jonas crept back to the safety of the wall and tried to peek inside. The windows were very small and fitted with thick iron bars. They were raised almost five feet from the ground.
“I’m guessing they don’t want anybody getting out of this place,” said Jonas as he tried to see through the gap but he couldn’t quite reach high enough.
Synne tried to lift herself up but like Jonas she couldn’t quite reach.
“Give me a lift up,” she asked.
Jonas put his hands together and with Synne placing one foot in his palms he easily lifted her up to the gap. Once she reached it, she grabbed the bars with both hands and took some of the weight away from Jonas. She peeked in and at first could see nothing. It was completely dark inside and there appeared to be no torches or lanterns of any kind. As her eyes became accustomed to the low light though, she noticed a number of people along one of the walls. She stared closely before realising that there were scores of people, each of them sitting or lying down and they were chained to the wall. She looked from left to right, noting the other corridors and rooms, each one full of the same numbers of people. She looked down to Jonas.
“I’m coming down.”
As she touched the ground, Jonas moved closer.
“Well?” he asked.
“Prisoners, hundreds of them.”
Jonas, overcome by the excitement and the possibilities the news created forgot to keep quiet and called out much louder than he intended.
“Anybody you can recognise?”
Synne placed her finger to her mouth and Jonas, quickly remembering where they were, came over with a cold feeling that you only feel when something truly awful is about to happen.
“Nobody but it was really dark. Keep your voice down!”
“What are we going to do? This place is crawling with guards and there are only two of us?” asked Jonas as he fidgeted.
As they considered their options, two more guards walked slowly past. One carried what looked like a large hammer on his shoulder whilst the other carried an oil lamp that flickered, casting hard shadows wherever it went. Both men wore the rough clothing that seemed to be the uniform of the many bands of Raiders throughout the Wastelands along the borders of the North.
“Why don’t we…” said Jonas, before being cut off.
“Hey!” shouted a man as he approached the two from a corner.
It was one of the Raiders, and on seeing the two intruders staying low to the wall, he turned to shout. Synne was on him in a flash and with one hand over his mouth, she plunged her narrow but wickedly pointed dagger deep into his throat. Black blood pumped out from the severed artery as he dropped to the ground, gurgling. Jonas ran over and helped pin him to the ground whilst looked suspiciously about for any more signs of trouble. With a final kick, the men went still, the life literally having drained out of him.
Synne lifted herself up and signalled for him to help her drag the body to the wall near the building. He was heavy but between the two of them, they did it quickly. Jonas groaned as he helped move the weight, the pain in his shoulder starting to kick in. With the body now out of the way, they looked about at their options.
“I say we break in now and try and get as many out as we can,” said Synne.
“Are you kidding? We have no food or weapons for them and you saw the ground heading to the South. They will have to run for miles out in the open before they even hit the mountains. What then? The Raiders have the train and mounted warriors. I say we get back and tell the League about what we have found. They must take action,” he argued.
Synne, starting to look angry, grabbed him and pulled him close so that her face was just a few inches away. At this distance, he could see the dark blood still tricking down her pale face.
“My brother, my friends and my people could be in there, I will not forsake them in this place when all I have to do is act. One more day and they could be dead!” she said angrily.
She turned and made her way to the doorway leading into the first building. The main entrance was a covered porch area that led to two large wooden doors. She placed her hand on the left door and applied a tiny amount of pressure. The door started to move and a squeak from its hinges made her stop. She turned to check on Jonas and was glad to see he had followed. She reached down and drew her sword, holding it close to her side whilst keeping her left hand free. Jonas did the same and moved up so he was close to the door.
“Ready?” she asked.
Jonas nodded. With a flicker of her wrist, she indicated for Jonas to open the door. As it swung open, she darted inside. The space was dark and cold and split into two corridors, one straight ahead and the other running from left to right. As she tried to gauge her position, a man lifted himself from a chair that was resting against the wall and in the shadows.
“Jonas!” she cried.
The man had barely reached his feet before she struck the man with a savage punch to the face. The blow struck his nose and cheek, spreading blood across his face. As he stumbled backwards, she followed him down to the floor and placed her knee on his chest.
“Take it easy!” cried Jonas as he moved ahead to restrain her.
“Back off, Jonas, he might have information!”
Turning back to the man on the floor, she applied a little more pressure to his chest before speaking.
“Who are these people?” she demanded.
“What?” spluttered the man.
“These prisoners, why are they here? Where are they from?” she asked again, putting more pressure on him.
He cried out in pain, the pressure obviously starting to take its toll.
“Workers,” he muttered, “workers for the mine.”
“Why are they chained up? Where are they from?” she said as loudly as she dared.
“Ask them yourself,” he said before struggling again.
* * *
Thrax had been on the move all day yet his stamina was exceptional and he showed no outward signs of tiredness. Though he had stopped for a short number of breaks, he had been on the move for hours. As expected he had met not a soul on his journey, this was hardly surprising though as he had seen nobody in these parts for several years. Only the occasional trader or student would come to him and they would always be from the South. Only a fool would head past the mountains and into the wild lands known to be occupied by the ever-embattled Raiders. Thrax had often wondered why most people didn’t just didn’t leave the Raiders to themselves and their self destructive tendencies. Any truce between them didn’t seem to last more than a few months, sometimes just days.
The road, as expected, had allowed him to slash the time of his journey, by his estimation he could be only an hour away from the Trading Post. The sound of rushing water announced his arrival at the river that divided this section of the land and at one point in the past had stood as a border between territories.
As he walked down the road, he came to a large section that had collapsed into the river. At some point, a bridge had run though this part of the terrain but either the water or some other event had destroyed it and left just large clumps of rock and earth across the river. A series of wooden planks formed a rickety bridge that moved over its length but looked less than safe. As he made to move to the first section, he noticed movement on the other side of the river. He ducked down and as he did, managed to knock a small rock down the side of the riverbank. It clattered and bumped before dropping in the water.
“Who’s there?” came a voice on the other side.
Thrax lifted his head slowly so he could get a look at those on the other side. From a pouch on his jacket, he brought out an old, battered pair of binoculars. He lifted them and though the image was slightly blurred, he could now see the strangers. From his position, it looked like there were three of them, two men and a woman plus a mule and a cart. The two older people of the three were standing near the cart whilst the third stood on the riverbank. The closest man was no warrior though he carried a staff that he tried to hold in as threatening manner as he could manage. They didn’t look like trouble, so Thrax lifted himself up though kept a wary eye on the surroundings.
“Just me, what are you doing here?”
The man took a step back, surprised to see Thrax appear from the cover along the riverbank.
“We aren’t looking for any trouble mister, we’re on our way to the South.”
Thrax stood up straight now, starting to relax.
“Don’t be worried, I’m not looking for you. Tell me, why are you leaving the area?”
He started to make his way over the river and the stranger stepped back a few more steps, looking warily at the well-built and commanding figure of Thrax. The planks were not easy to navigate but with careful use of his staff, he managed to cross the river without complications. Once reaching the other side, he stayed a short distance from the group, so as to not frighten them.
“Do you know where the train goes?” he asked.
“The machine on the tracks?” asked the man.
“I’ve never been there but I do know that some of our farmers were taken to work in the mine there. It is some kind of outpost used by the Raiders. We have done our best to stay away from them and keep to our farms which are well away from them.”
“Are you heading back home then?” asked Thrax.
“Home?” replied the man with a snort of derision.
Thrax raised his eyebrow but said nothing. The two people that were standing near the cart approached. The short, plump, woman with the look of a hard-nosed farmer’s wife, moved nearer to him and examined him closely.
“You’re not from around here, I can’t place your accent,” she said.
“I’m originally from the city of Haven,” he said, expecting some recognition.
“Haven? Where’s that?” asked the other man.
“Haven is the greatest settlement south of the Wastelands and ruled by Lord Galan. It is one of the League cities,” explained Thrax, though he suspected these simple folk had no idea what he was talking about.
The three in the group looked at each other and then back to him.
“South? I thought the Wastelands were impassable?” asked the woman.
Thrax turned his head in confusion.
“The South is split into many fiefs and kingdoms, each ruled by an alliance between two great forces, those of the Brotherhood the League. I wasn’t aware there are settlements this far in the North.”
“Well, you’re right now. These Raiders have been fighting in our lands for the last year. They destroyed our last city just a few days ago,” said the woman.
“We just can’t hold them back. At first, they arrived with horses but then they built a fort and put down iron tracks. Every week the steam machine comes back with more warriors and they just keep coming. Only a few of us managed to escape from the attack, we heard some had made it through the Wastelands alive. Is it true then, I mean, about the Southlands?” asked the older man.
“Is what true?” asked Thrax.
“That there are great cities and fields full of fresh food in the old lands,” replied the woman.
“Well, it isn’t perfect but there are cities, farms and food.”
The three looked happily at each other with this news.
“Well, nice to chat with you mister, but we must keep on, we only have so much food to keep us going,” explained the younger man.
“Wait, can you tell me anything else about this land near the track? I am looking for my friends who I think might be at the end of the track,” he asked.
“They don’t want to be there, that is the home of the worst clan of them all. I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard that is where they build and make the steam machines and mine in the ground.”
“Do you know how I can get inside?”
“Hmm, well, if you turn left and follow the river it will take you to the east side of the place. You will smell it before you see it. Follow the black smoke and it will take you there. I would say no more than an hour. A few months ago, one of our town’s boys managed to escape on a small boat on the river. It flows eastwards but it will be easier that way than going to the gate on the main entrance.”
The small group returned to their cart and prepared to move on. Thrax took a sip of water and looked ahead along the river and into the distance.
“I hope your friends are okay, the Raiders are animals,” said the woman as they moved away.
Thrax returned his flask and with one last look at the group, he continued on his journey to the North.
* * *
Jonas was in the centre of the first large room and stood in stunned silence as he looked up and down at the rows of prisoners. They had tied and gagged the guard near the doorway, so they could keep an eye on him. Synne had already spoken to the first few prisoners and had unlocked their chains using the keys taken from the guard. As Jonas watched, he noticed movement outside the main door and moved quickly to the wall, so as not to be seen. He hissed quietly to get Synne’s attention. She finished with the prisoners and crept slowly over to him.
“What’s the problem?” she asked quietly.
There’s movement outside. Have you found out how often they change the guards?”
“The next guard is due at sunrise, so that will be in about two hours, roughly.”
“What have you found?” he asked her.
“Well, so far all of these people are from the villages and farms along the borders. Apparently, those chosen for use in the military have been taken further north to some kind of military camp. The rest of the Haven prisoners are being kept in the next building along. The trouble is, they have another two guards in there.”
Jonas looked less than impressed.
“So we know they have prisoners here, what are we going to do?”
“The man over there says the Raiders have captured two engineers that they use to keep the train running. They keep them both at the fortified compound inside the settlement.
“So? You believe him? He would say anything for us to help him out of here. He could be worse than the Raiders for all we know!” exclaimed Jonas.
“No, I don’t think so. He sounds terrified, said his brother was a blacksmith. They took him to make tools in the workshops before he tried to get away. They killed him a week ago and then killed another ten as punishment for defying them,” she said with venom in her voice.
“Now, if we could break out the engineers, they could control the train and we could take the prisoners out on that.”
Jonas almost laughed at the plan before moving closer to her. His expression changed from feigned amusement to slight anger.
“Synne, are you serious? You want to break out two of them, plus all these prisoners and get away on the train without anybody noticing? What if there is a problem with the train, or what if it is too slow to get away from here before the Raiders are on us?” he asked sarcastically.
“Well, I thought you might help,” she replied with a wicked grin.
“I’m not joking with you, Synne.”
“I know you aren’t and neither am I. I say we take a dozen of them with us and move to the other end of the settlement. We can start a fire or something to keep them busy. Once they are occupied, we’ll split into two groups, one to get the engineers and the other to get the prisoners down to the train. We keep it simple and do this thing one stage at a time. Right now we have surprise on our side,” she explained.
One of the men recently released by Synne moved up to them. He was gaunt but there was fire in his eyes at the chance to do something.
“I heard you talking. I work in the storage areas where they keep all the chemicals. If you get me and a couple of others there we could start a fire of the size you’ve never dreamed of,” he said with glee.
Synne looked back to Jonas who after a short pause nodded in agreement.
“Okay then, what is your name?” she asked.
“Eric,” replied the man.
“Okay, Eric, I want you to release everybody else in this building and tell them to be ready. Keep them here and make no noise. Wait till we return and if anybody else comes in here, other than us, just pretend you are still tied up, understood?”
Eric nodded as she handed him the keys.
“What about the diversion?” he asked.
“We’re going to the other prison building, we need to get the rest of them unlocked. We’ll come back for you after that. I’m not leaving without everyone and we’re going to need that diversion of yours,” she said.
Eric smiled and turned back to the rest of the prisoners, many of whom were leaning forward, eager to hear what was going on. Synne moved back to Jonas.
“Let’s go and check on the others, then we need to work out this plan!”
As they made to move, Jonas reached out and held her back.
“What about the guards?”
Synne withdrew her curved blade and held it in front of her.
“I think it’s time we introduced ourselves to them,” she said with a smile.