Even without walking, the travel north was long and arduous. Dene and other eleven tribesmen were arranged sitting down in two rows with their backs against the small wagon's walls. Those were her people; men and women she fought side by side with. After this, it was possible that they would never meet again.
The acrid smell of sweat assaulted her nose, just like the day before and the one before that. Furthermore, the wagon was kept completely closed, which made the inside of it feel like a stove, causing even more sweat and therefore a worse smell.
For the past month now this had been her life, with only brief interruptions twice a day when they would be taken out to relieve themselves, like dogs.
Only during these brief intervals were they able to take a breath of fresh air and look around to see how the desert sands gradually turned into green fields and farmlands for as far as the eyes could see.
So much life. Dene would have found such views beautiful if it weren't for the situation at hand. Now she just wished for those fields to burn down along with all of these northerners.
Other than these moments, they remained chained up, crammed inside the small wagon, eating and sleeping like that.
Today this torment would come to an end, though it may very well give way to something much, much worse.
From outside came the sound of horses trotting on the dirt road. Too many to count.
Listening to the banter of their captors, she knew they were not far from their destination.
Gwynland, one of the four northern kingdoms.
They first headed north to Lisbleus, then west towards Brestais, a city at the kingdom's border. There, they would be separated, cleaned and sent to their respective houses.
"Halt!" Ordered a voice from afar and the wagon slowed down until finally stopping. "State your business."
"Good morning friends." A second voice, this time coming from the side of the wagon answered. Dene recognized that voice, as the other captors referred to it as Captain. "We bring a shipment from down south addressed to your Lordship the Marquis. He should be expecting us already."
"Yes, he is. Wait a moment, I'll call his assistant."
They remained stopped for a quarter of an hour until someone else arrived.
"Took you long enough. The shipment was supposed to arrive two days ago."
"Do you know how hard it is to move through a desert? We had to go slow."
"His Lordship doesn't care for your excuses. Now hurry up and show me the cargo."
"Yeah, yeah," The Captain said, then continued in a lower voice, "arrogant little prick."
He opened the door at the back of the wagon, causing Dene to squint her eyes because of the blinding light.
"Now let me see these- By the holy flame!" The assistant had barely arrived at the Captain's side and immediately pulled away, "Blargh!" and retched.
"I should have warned you about the smell, my bad." Apologized the Captain, though his tone of voice said otherwise.
Dene's eyes started adjusting to the light, and she was able to see a pompously dressed man, most likely the assistant, with his head down and hands on his knees.
The Captain was behind the door, which prevented her from seeing him.
Further back, she counted four dozen cavalrymen - around two men for every woman - and there should be more at the front.
Different from the soldiers surrounding the Crown Prince, these ones weren't as well equipped.
They donned a standard black cuirass over a blue gambeson coupled with a pair of black plate gauntlets. Also, over blue pants, half-cuisses and half-greaves which only protected the front part of the legs, both of them in black color.
Finally, the uniforms had a black helmet with a blue cloth wrapped around it, though they weren't currently wearing it, with most carrying them around their arms, or tied to their unarmored horses.
As for weapons, these were the only northerners Dene had seen using something other than swords.
They carried long spears which they would point forward when charging with their horses, wreaking havoc on the southerners lines. The spears didn't fare as well when unable to charge though, with the cavalrymen choosing to switch them for the sword at their hips and dismount in such situations.
Dene wondered, if the southerners shared this devotion to the sword, maybe the result could've been different. Maybe if they donned heavy pieces of armor like the northerners, trading speed and agility for better protection they could have lasted longer. Or maybe their ways were better, and they were defeated despite them and not because of them.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. It made no difference now.
"Haa… koff koff… you damn lowborn!... argh… the Marquis will hear of this!"
"Yeah yeah, do as you wish, our job is done. Let's go, men, let's find us some girls!"
"And boys!" A woman's voice called out.
"Why spend your silver when there are so many nice lads around? Me for example."
"For starters, I would prefer someone who has bathed in the past fortnight..."
Cheers and laughter rang out, as the cavalrymen made their way to the city, leaving the assistant behind with the wagon.
The assistant recomposed himself, while a group of guards from the city came to his side. They had similar equipment to the cavalrymen, save for the long spear, cuisses, and greaves.
Also, instead of the black and blue, they were in gold and white.
"Tch!" He spat on the ground before turning towards the open wagon and asking, "Can you speak common?"
Dene and the others slowly nodded after a couple of seconds.
"Good, come on out then."
Dene struggled to stand up on numb legs, then, even more, to step down from the wagon and stand in line, all the while chained to the other eleven. Out of the wagon, she was able to see they had stopped in front of the city gates.
"Urgh," The man pressed a handkerchief to his nose, "At least the number is right."
With that, he proceeded to examine the group, starting from leftmost one, Dene.
"Young, but a Crusader and Archmage already. Shouldn't be too hard on the eyes without the gash on the face. Lieutenant!" The assistant shouted towards the one who seemed in charge of the guards.
The man came towards the assistant and replied, "Sir."
"Pick four men to take this to get washed up and call for Doctor Vannier to heal the face. When done, ship it to house Olsen."
Four guards then came forward, unchained her from the others and guided her into the city.
She turned around to take one last look at her people, all the while trying not to cry.
'Be strong.' She kept thinking to herself.
They went through the gates into a wide, but still crowded street. There were common people going their way, merchants by the sides showcasing their products, beggars asking for a few coppers and street urchins walking around, definitely up to no good.
But whoever they were, as long as they were not part of the nobility, everyone made way for the city guard.
Dene walked for three or four kilometers until reaching a castle. They went through the gates, climbed two flights of stairs and through a long, nicely decorated corridor until reaching a door.
The guards removed her chains and shoved her inside.
"Don't try anything black one," One of the guards spoke, "There's only one exit and we'll be guarding it."
Having said his piece, the man closed the door.
The guard wasn't lying, the washroom had no windows nor any other doors. Only a couple of lightstones on the walls for illumination, and a bathtub filled with water in the middle of the room.
No soap, brush or anything. Dene was wondering how she was supposed to wash when the door opened again and three servant girls came in. They were carrying blocks of soap, brushes, towels, a flask with what she believed to be perfume and some clothes.
"Ple-Please take off your clothes and en-enter the bathtub." Stammered one of them.
She should be in her teens, same for the other two, and was only a level 4 Fighter.
Dene could easily kill the trio, but she would never make it through the guards outside so she just did as asked.
She removed her rags, dropped them on the ground and got inside the tub.
The girls quickly got to work, washing, soaping and brushing every part of her body.
She couldn't help to recall her life back south as Chief's daughter, where she would have servants to care for all her needs. Clothes, foods, drinks. Whatever she wished for, there would be someone to answer her orders.
Except for her hair. She prohibited anyone from touching it, and would always care for it herself.
"Is it here?" Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice coming from outside.
"Yes, Sir," One of the guards answered, "Please enter."
The door was opened again and in came an old Warlock man. He had no beard and the little hair he had left was completely white and was dressed in grey clothes under a white, sleeveless tunic.
When he came in the girls immediately dropped everything and backed away. He approached the tub, looked at Dene's face, uttered an incantation and pulled some water from the tube towards the scar, which began to heal until closing down completely, leaving no marks behind.
"It's done." He said, left, and the door was once again closed. The whole process must have taken less than a minute.
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