Chapter 25

November 21st, 2020
Zechariah awoke to the smell of fresh bread. It confused him for a moment for being so far out of civilized society, fresh bread was not a scent he had expected to experience. The next thing he was aware of, was his parched throat and pounding head. He sat up groggily, holding his head an looking around. The camp of strangers was up and about, Beldrid kneeling over a campfire baking a roll of bread wrapped around a stick.
“Mornin'. Bledrid said with a smile. “You still with us eh?”
“Barely.” Zechariah groaned rubbing his eyes. “You uh, have any more water?”
“Dunno.” Bledric said turning his bread over slowly. “See, I know you don't got anything of worth, save your horse there. We checked last night. Good thing for ya to. We'd of killed ya and taken your shit. But having no shit also begs the question: How you going to pay us for our hospitality eh?”
Zechariah looked down. He wasn't terribly surprised. In fact, he kind of expected it. However, it still wasn't nice to deal with. “So. What are you going to do? Kill me and take my horse?”
Beldrid lifted his bread up, inspected it, and returned it to the fire before answering. “It'd certainly be more profitable for us.”
“Profitable? What would be profitable about that?” Zechariah asked in disbelief. Beldrid looked at him incredulously, as if Zechariah was insane.
“It's, a horse.” He said, believing the statement answered it's own question.
Zechariah pinched his eyes shut, his head throbbing painfully. “What good does that do you? You don't have an extra rider, you can't go into town to sell it. The best you could do is eat it.”
Beldrid scratched his scraggly beard thinking for a moment, jumping a little in surprise as he accidentally lowered his bread into the fire charring it. “I suppose you have point there.” He said reluctantly, but then continued. “However, if you're not worth a drop, then I might as well leave ya out here to die.” He said eyeing Zechariah.
His mind raced. He had to find an adequate answer, a reason he might be convince these outlaws to keep him alive. “I...” Zechariah began and hesitated, then getting an idea said, “I can trade for you! You don't have any way to get goods to repair your gear or to eat well. I can trade for you. I'm not declared an outlaw yet.”
Beldrid snorted. “Trade for us!” he laughed. “You must be more brain cooked than we thought! Why in Gorgoth's rotting maw would I trust you with my drops? You'd be off in the next town taking my drops with ya.” Beldrid was right. There was no way he'd trust Zechariah with his drops. Zechariah fell silent, thinking hard but damn, his head swam in the already hot hours of the morning. 93 “Got nothing else eh?” Beldrid asked, smirking.
Zechariah shook his head. “I'm a farmer. I don't have anything you'd want or need.” He said running a hand through his hair.
“Farmer eh?” Beldrid said taking bread off the fire and smelling it happily, an eager glint in his eye. Zechariah nodded. “Then whats all that on your hand? I don't see many farmer with runes carved into their hands.”
His eyes widened, as he quickly stuffed his left hand into his robes hiding it from view. He quickly realized that it was pointless as he and probably the others had already inspected it, but it was just a reflex. He hated people pointing out his hand. “Its...Its uh...”
“You're not very good at this whole lying business are ya?” Beldrid said, his eyes shutting and he hummed happily as he bit into his bread. Speaking around his mouth full of delicious steaming hot bread he continued, “You might wanta work on that. Lyin's a real useful tool. So what is it?”
He looked at his ruined hand, flexing the dry skin painfully, curling it into the usual claw it was. “I don't know. It's magical, but I don't know what it does.”
“Who carves a rune into their own hand not knowin' what it does?” Beldrid barked in disbelief. “You daft?”
“Might be.” Zechariah replied dryly. “Considering my recent decisions in life, daft wouldn't be enough. More like stark raving mad.”
Beldrid slowed his chewing, eyeing Zechariah. “Well...then you're in good company. We're all a bit daft here. Aint we Gerb?” He called out leaning over back to give 'Gerb' a shit eating smile.
“Fuck off ya cunt.” Gerb replied sourly. “You're the only daft one here. Nine's fine. Ten's bad luck.”
“Is that right?” Beldrid said laughing. “Just like sleeping with your feet to the Peak is bad luck?”
“Yep. You'll learn it soon or later ya bastard.” Gerb said grumpily. “Or you won't. You're the thickest of us all.”
Beldrid laughed and several of the others chuckled as well as he turned back to Zechariah. “You good with a sword?” he asked but Zechariah just shook his head. “No skills with a sword no wealth, no magic. You're pretty fucking useless aren't ya?”
For some reason, that made Zechariah scowl. It wasn't false, he was pretty fucking useless, but it stung none the less. “To you perhaps. That doesn't mean I'm useless.”
“Oh?” Beldrid asked. “Then tell me Zechariah, what are you good at?”
“I'm a pretty damn good farmer.” Zechariah said knowing it sounded lame. “I'm good with my hands, and I am pretty good at carvings.” His stomach growled, god he was hungry and that bread smelled so good. “Though I may not be good at the sword, I'm learning, and I'm strong.”
Beldrid raised an eyebrow at him. “Farming and art are fucking useless. Farming not so much but art is useless to everyone. Strong though? I'll be the judge of that.” He finished his bread and stood. “Here's my offer to you Zechariah. The way I see it, you owe me. I saved your life and, still am saving your life. So ya owe me. You fight Gerb over there, and if I like what you got, I'll let you live and be my squire. You fail or refuse and...well...” He gestured around him at the fast empty sands. “You best hope you get somewhere fast on foot.”
Zechriah's heart dropped. Normally, he'd have not minded such a deal. Gerb was a large man, but not that large, and on a good day, Zecharaih might have stood a fighting chance. Stuck in a cell for the last few ports, and have starved and dehydrated, he didn't stand a chance. “You realize I'm not in best form at the moment don't you?” He said gesturing to his bandaged arm.
“Way I see it, a man who's fighting for his life's got a better motivation than any one else. So if you can't fight like madman, you can't fight like a sane man.” He stood up, dusting off his hands and called out “Gerb! I got a fight for ya.”
“Again?” Gerb said tiredly, “Why's it always got to be me?”
“Cause you're big.” Beldrid said matter of factly.
“Yeah, but ya always get angry with me when I kill them.” Gerb said throwing up his hands.
Beldrid pursed his lips in a thin line getting annoyed at his arguing. “Then don't kill him.” He said accentuating each word clearly. “Then we won't have that problem will we?”
“But I like killin'. Gerb protested before he saw the firm look on Beldrid's face. “Fine. I'll try not to kill him.”
Zechariah finally spoke up again. “Can I have some more water first? I can barely think straight.
Beldrid laughed at him. “And risk it all going to waste if you die or we decide to ditch you? Not a chance.” The camp was moving, ever eye was on him as Gerb approached.
“You ever killed a man before Z?” Gerb asked shortening his name as far down as possible.
“Not a human, no.” Zechariah answered, standing up and staggering a little bit as he gained his balance.
“Not a human?” Gerb asked. “Killing a few sheep on your farm isn't the same.”
“It was a Draconian.” Zechariah said walking away from the campfire and the bundles on the sands, taking his stance but, Gerb didn't advance.
“You wot?” Gerb asked stupified. “You killed one them sky demons?”
Zechariah nodded, looking at the others. “Just a few ports back. A Machwi.”
One of the other outlaws cursed under her breath, man exhaled heavily. Zechariah smiled inwardly. He knew he didn't have a chance against Gerb but maybe, just maybe, he had a hope of getting out of this alive.
Gerb shook his head in disbelief and then smiled. “Well, let's see what you got demon killer.” he said advancing.
Zechariah shook his head but not in disbelief, it was to try and clear his vision which had begun to swim before his eyes, but doing so made his head pound. Damnnit all. This was insane. Gathering his wits, he readied himself as Gerb took up a surprisingly nimble stance. Feet close together, resting on the balls of his feet as his fists curled up in front of his face. Compared to Zechariah's low and wide stance, it was night and day. Zechariah's stance was deep set, firm, stable. Nawfa had said that his size and build that he would be better off using his size and weight to push his opponents off balance, and so he had to make his balance was firm. Gerb here, as big as Zechariah used to be, was not firm set at all. He looked like wanted to dance, and dance as well as Nawfa might.
Gerb saw his confusion and grinned, shuffling forward with quick short steps as he almost bounced along the sands. “Used to be an illegal pit fighter I did.” He boasted. “Killed a lot of men in that ring.”
Great. Big, strong, fast and a record to boast about. Gerb advanced, and Zechariah swallowed hard. He couldn't use his right arm much. His dominant arm he'd beat black and blue with a quarter staff. That meant is mostly kicks, or nothing. It also meant he couldn't well defend his right side. This was going to be awful. Zechariah moved his feet slowly, in archs drawn in the sand as he began to circle with Gerb, keeping his left side facing the large man. Suddenly, with great speed Gerb danced forward throwing out a punch like a sledge hammer swooshing towards Zechariah's face. Deep set though his stance was, he shuffled backwards and didn't have to dodge as the punch pulled up short. Gerb pressed that attack though stepping forward again and again. Zechariah had to duck and dodge most of the attacks, blocking a few with his left arm by slapping them aside but, the dodge made his head swim. He was getting dizzy.
Taking a quick two step away from Gerb, he set his attack. Gerb was attacking aggressively, and directly. His fists focused on straight punches, They were fast, and very strong. He was sure one direct hit would win Gerb this fight. A hit he couldn't afford. Two steps back. Gerb paused, and then grinned, stepping forward. Gerb was trained, he'd know Zechariah would use his kicks, so Zechariah had to get past Gerb's knowledge and his speed. Zechariah shifted his legs, swapping positions, and putting his right, almost broken arm forward. It was foolish, and Gerb paused again, eyeing him. He didn't like this display. It didn't make sense to him. Scowling, Gerb stepped forward eager to punish Zechariah's arrogance.
One step, then two. Zechariah brought his right leg up in a straight forward kick. Gerb slamed a fist down to knock the kick aside, a kick that never came. His fist swung wide sweeping though the air as Zechariah slammed his foot down onto the sands and used it a momentum push to swing is right leg up and lash out in a powerful heel leading kick to Gerb's stomach. It connected.
Gerb had tensed his stomach moments before the impact, and Zechariah's heel met rock hard abs. Underneath his baggy clothes and deceptive fat, was a rock hard wall of muscles. Gerb grunt in pain, the kick would surly hut a lot but, with his weakened state, it was not nearly as effective as he had hoped and, with a leering sneer on his face, Gerb pushed forward lashing out with a fist. Zechariah's world swam and he blacked out as his face met the sand.

November 22nd, 2020  
Not for the first time, Zechariah awoke to water being poured on his face. He decided, groggily, that it was not a habit he wanted to form. Spluttering, and somewhat peeved, not by the water on his face, but by the fact it was not in his gut, he swatted at the hands above him.
“See?” He heard big Gerb grumbling, “I told you he was alive.”
“Well I'll be.” Beldrid said as he came into focus above Zechariah, “You're actually still alive. I though Gerb broke your neck with that punch ya head snapped so far back.”
Groaning, his head throbbing from more than just dehydration now he said, “I wish I had died.” Opening his eyes again he siad, “Look, if you're going to kill me by leaving me here, do me a favor and just off me with a sword first?”
“Nah, see, that there's no fun. If I'm gonna kill a man, and I don't have to be quick about it, I'm either taking my sweet time, or leaving him to die slowly another way. No satisfaction in a quick death is there now eh?” Beldrid asked smirking. Zechariah's heart fell, as he heard the other's laughing. “Last man I didn't have to kill in a hurry, oh he screamed like his bitch I raped before. But...” He poked Zechariah in the chest, “I'm not going to kill ya.”
It took a moment for him to register his words after dropping such a horrific admission of guilt on him. His brow suddenly furrowed. “You're not? Why?”
Beldrid shrugged. “Lots of reasons. You're funny for one. Us convicts gotta stick together see? On our own, we get easily hunted down and reported. Together though, it takes and organized squad to catch us. Not a lot of spare guardsmen can afford to chase us into these here Barrens.” Beldrid rubbed his nostrils with his four knuckles. “Lastly, you did alright against Gerb.”
“Horseshit.” Zechariah said. He realized, at Beldrid's expression that he was pretty daft for arguing against himself. “I mean, Gerb knocked me out in one punch and I barely landed a hit on him.”
“Yeah yeah.” Beldrid answered dismissively. “But the fact is, you got him first. I saw that kick. You're smarter than you look eh? Had you had more meat on your bones, or a weapon in your hand, I'd say that you had what you might call potential.” Beldrid grinned. “Potential boot shiner.” He added and laughed. “You'll be my slave, and tend my horse and sharpen my sword and...” He paused thinking.
“Polish your boots?” Zechariah asked flatly.
“Yeah. That's the one. Polish me boots. You can suck me cock to.” He said laughing and standing up and leaving him lying in the sand.
He slowly sat up slowly, as the others followed Beldrid. What had he gotten himself into? He took a moment, sitting with his arms on his knees. Steed was getting watered again, and drank happily and suddenly, he remembered his own thirst. Standing gingerly, he made his way over to the camp. “So, can I get some of that water now?”
They looked to Beldrid, who gave a nod. One of the women grabbed a water skin and tossed it to him saying, “Don't drink too much. We are running low.”
“You shouldn't have wasted any waking me up.” Zechariah said as he took a couple gulps. It felt like life was flowing into him again, and he could immediately feel the effects. He took a few more gulps, drawing the disapproving eye of the lady who gave it to him. He capped it, and tossed it back to her. “So, Bel...”
“You mean Master.” Beldrid said interrupting him.
“No, I fucking meant Beldrid.” Zechariah retorted. What was with him? Egging on these crazy criminals constantly. It was surely going to bite him in the ass. “You want me to work for you, fine. I'll tend your horse, sharpen your blade and polish your boots but I'm not sucking any cock, and I'm calling you master.”
Beldrid laughed again as he began to wrap more dough around a stick preparing to cook it. “I could always just sell you the slavers.”
Zechariah's blood went cold. There was something in the way he said it. Yes, he was laughing, yes he was being nonchalant, but no...he wasn't joking. “You going to keep me tied up and haul my ass across the Barrens for some pittance of drops at a slavers?” He didn't really know how much money slaves were sold for. It must have actually been a fair bit considering the slave trade was still, though not openly, in full swing. Ultimately, everyone surf under a king was a slave. Technically, Zechariah was already a slave.
“Why bother?” Beldrid chuckled gesticulating to the open Barrens around them. “It's not like you got any place to run to.”
Glaring at Beldrid, he sat down cross legged. “Kill me, don't kill me, sell me to slavers, don't sell me to slavers. I don't give a shit any more. This is a fucking disaster.”
“Aww, did Z have some big life plans that got ruined?” Everyone snickered. “Welcome to the crew Z. We all had our lives ruined. Now we're here.”
“Aww,” Zechariah mimicked Beldrid's mocking, “Does someone miss shoveling human shit down the streets?”
“Sure do. Every time I had to shovel human shit and piss, it meant I'd done a fine damn good job it did.” Beldrid said gazing into the fire, thinking fondly of things that once were. Fondly of shit?
“What, did you do?” He asked, unsure if he truly wanted to know.
Beldrid looked at him square in the eye, and held his eye for a long time. “I was Malik's torturer.”
Zechariah started in surprise. That, was impossible. This man, once been in the king's employ? “H-how?” He asked incredulously.
“How?” He echoed. “I'm a murderer remember?”
“How does being a murderer make you the king's torturer?” Zechariah inquired.
“Well, I got to liking the flaying kind of fun. The peel of skin off flesh and flesh of bone.” Beldrid shivered slightly. “God's it's been ages since I have good fun with someone. Anyway, saw this real fat bastard and I thought to myself, I never peeled fat like that off of muscle before. I wanted to give it a try. See, I didn't really pay attention to fine clothing or jewels.” He laughed. “I was only interested in the squeals he'd make as I finally make him the thin man he always wants to be!” He rolled the fresh bread over roasting it slowly.
Feeling queasy, Zechariah looked at his feet, staring into nothing. Who were these freaks? He seemed more akin to the horrific Jundar than a man.
“Turns out, that squeaker was some kind of political fucker that Malik didn't like. When they caught me, the king had some questions about he died see. So I told him every. Little. Detail. Malik loved it the sick fuck! Offered to let me live if, I worked for em. So I did. Figured I'd get paid to murder for free? Best job a man could ask for!”
“Then why are you here?”
“Ah see now, he's one of them men who's happy when you're killing people he don't like but the moment you kill someone that he 'loves',” Beldrid rolled his eys in disgust, “He gets all mad and imprisons me planning to hang me. Me! After all the blood I shed for him? The asshole. Fortunately, i'd spent enough time in those there prisons that I knew them inside and out, and I knew just how to get in and out of every cell, mostly. I had some pick under me skin see? Figured it's always better safe than sorry you know? So I waited for night fall, cut open me skin with me finger nail, took out em picks and walked out of prison. Killing a few guards of course.”
He was stunned. How? How could a man be permitted to live? Not by man or law but by Almaran! How could the lord of Law allow such chaos to thrive? Zechariah shook his head in disbelieve asking, “How long have you been in the Barrens?”
“The Barrens? About a cycle. I'd been living as a convict for...for...well I don't rightly know. Sometimes gets hard to keep track of time when you don't got to worry about anything eh? Been a long time though.”
“ old were you when you became an outlaw, to how old you are now? That should tell us how long you've been an outlaw right?” Zechariah said trying to be helpful.
Beldrid just laughed at him. “See! You are funny. Ha! How old am I? How old? How would I fucking know? I never kept track of my age before I was in the kings employ, and I certainly don't keep track of it now. What's the point?”
“So that you can know how long you've been an outlaw.” Zechariah answered patronizingly.
“Who cares! What good does do me eh? Does it change the me here and now? Does it change something that might happen to me in the there and then?” Zechariah didn't have an answer to that. He couldn't really argue. Although he wanted to, he supposed Beldrid was right. “I am where I am, and I'll go where I'm going. Nothing more to it.”
“Then where are you going?”
“Haha! How should I know!” He tossed Zechariah the stick with the bread on it. “Eat up slave. It's pretty tasty.” Standing...he began to prepare his horse for travel.
Zechariah sat stunned, holding the bread but only for a moment. All at once, he was wolfing the bread down like a man possessed. In a moment, it was gone, and though he wanted more, he didn't lament the speed at which it was gone. He stood up, and began to prepare Steed for travel once again. The others had been kind enough to give Steed some feed but, a small portion and he was hungry and upset. Zechariah had to knee him a couple of ties to stop him from sucking in air and making the saddle too lose. Soon, he was swinging himself once more into Steed's saddle, and began to ride off into the Barrens, this time, following a man who was either possessed by demons, or just truly fucking insane.


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