It was dark by the time Kri woke up. The wagon was once again rocking and bumping its way down the road. She absently wondered if she'd get used to the accursed darts as everything once again came into focus. She spotted Shinkir sleeping in the opposite corner and then became aware of the ropes around her wrists and ankles. They itched and she felt drained. She shouldn't have waited so long, but her stubbornness had kept her back. Still exhausted she drifted back to sleep.
Kri was awake before the sun was fully up. The grayness of the morning matched her current, sullen mood, as she was still hungry, still thirsty, and really feeling it for the first time. Her Shamien form allowed her to go almost an impossible amount of time without water, but as a Human again the lack was quickly catching up to her. There wasn't much movement in the camp, though one or two fires were still going. Nothing of any interest seemed to be going on within the camp itself.
A thought played across her mind, she'd been out for quite some time, and she was back in her Human form. What had they taken? It was immediately apparent that her sword was gone. As if they'd leave her with something like that. She ran through a mental list of the supplies she'd had on her. Money, gone, fishing line and associated supplies, gone, gloves, gone, and her hunting knife, also gone.
Her gloves and her sword! She could care less about the rest of it, but the loss of the sword was devastating. It was one of the few constant things in her life the past three years. She learned to handle it as she learned to control her 'shifts and to blend in and survive on her own.
The only thing more distressing than the loss of the sword was being without her gloves. Long ago they had become unnecessary in some of her forms as she learned how to hide her Marks beneath fur or feather, but as a Human the Shabenay Marks were plainly visible; stark black lines against her lightly tanned skin.
Shinkir finally started to stir. There was more activity in the camp now as breakfasts were being made and the tents were broken down.
Kri picked Symihr out of the crowd and watched as he approached the cage, an extra loaf with the usual flask in his hands. Shinkir was up by the time Symihr reached them.
"I'm glad you finally saw it our way, Kri. I was hoping we wouldn't have to do anything drastic before you starved yourself."
"I wouldn't be here if you hadn't ratted me out, Symihr." Kri replied, casting him a smoldering glare.
Symihr chuckled, "Well, nothing I could help. You Shabenay can't be left free. Demons shouldn't even be allowed to mix with normal people, given the chance to do as they please."
"And what about their relations, Symihr?" Kri asked. "Has your boss asked how you knew? As cousin to a Shabenay I think he might reconsider your position in this little group."
The humor in Symihr's face left and his lip twitched, "That remains to be seen." He opened the small door and dropped the food and drink inside. Turning stiffly he walked back towards the camp.
Shinkir was staring at Kri once again mouth agape.
"Cousins?" Shinkir managed.
"Yeah, cousins, through my father. Symihr left about five years ago, trying to get away from Murn; it's just a small fishing town. The place was driving him nuts and he took his first chance out. I don't know how he managed to hook up with this, but I don't suppose I'm surprised." She coughed dryly and fumbled for the water with her tied hands. After downing half of it she spoke again. "Where do you think we're going? What do you think they've planned for us?"
She held the water out to Shinkir who took it and looked at it, pondering. Kri started to slowly work at the bread, eyes on Shinkir and waiting for her reply. "It's hard to tell on the first as we're still in the Sha, but, the second . . ." she furrowed her brow, contemplating. "It's obvious they want us alive. Why go through all this trouble if they just plan on killing us?
"The only thing I can really think of comes from something I remember hearing when I was little, stories of the Five Empires and all that. How when we weren't killed they'd just as often put us into slavery."
"Slavery?" Kri looked rather disturbed at the idea. She'd gone rigid and her loaf was now slightly squished in her hands.
"Yeah, it lasted until they figured we were better off dead." Shinkir polished off the water and they finished their meager meal in silence.
The next six days they continued travel through the Sha. Kri regained some of her strength and was feeling better as they left the shadowed forest. The small train of wagons then turned south and slowly pulled away from the thick woods of the Sha Forest.
Shinkir stared out the back of the wagon cage as they bumped and rolled farther and farther from her home. She sniffled and muttered something to herself.
"I take it you've never been outside of the Sha." Kri commented.
"I've been outside," Shinkir assured her, "just . . . not without one of them with me."
Kri looked from Shinkir to the retreating forest. She sat back and remembered when she had left home. It wasn't a pleasant memory. The whole town had chased her from her home to the river. Things were fuzzy from the time she hit the icy water until she had awakened in the rocky inlet just before the river dropped some hundred feet into the ocean. She had found a second Mark that morning and her eye swollen shut from the wound she'd received during her flight. She traced the bottom edge of the scar with her fingertips. Her thoughts had been so captivating that she hadn't heard Shinkir's initial bid for her attention. "Sorry, what'd you say?"
"I was asking if you've ever been in the Sha. I mean really been in it, not just using the road."
"Been through it once, the north part, where those foothills are before the Kishrehn Mountains. I didn't meet any Shamien, if that's what you're getting at, but I did feel like I was being watched the whole time."
The days wore on. Kri set aside thoughts of escape until after reaching their destination. It wouldn't be worth the risk, especially since Iren's men had the advantage of both numbers and those drugged darts; that and she was in no shape to change shape on demand. She'd wait, for now at least.
It was a full twelve days outside of the Sha Forest before Iren stopped the company for a final time with the Shabenay in tow. They halted in front of a pair of huge, iron-barred gates, which were flanked by walls of large, polished white block. Outside of the rather impressive entrance stood two bronze statues of the Tsi, winged creatures used by some sects of Tynomai. They sat on their haunches with wings spread; the tips brushed each other overhead. Flanking the road that lead to the impressive site was an orchard of thick-trunk fruit trees grown uniformly tall and separate.
The two Shabenay now placed at the front of the caravan looked around curiously. After taking in the initial sight Kri focused on Iren, who was speaking with a small, robed figure on the other side of the gate. The Frineir nodded several times and motioned to Kri and Shinkir. The figure nodded in reply and hurried off and out of sight.
A metallic sound rang before the gate slowly retreated to the side, allowing the entrance of Shinkir and Kri's wagon cage. The short, robed figure reappeared with a box that filled its relatively short arms. Once again it addressed Iren, opening the box with a bow to reveal the rich contents. Iren beamed as he dropped his jaw in a typical canine grin. With a flick of his wrist he motioned to one of his men who brought a long, wrapped object and presented it, in turn, to the small form before him with a bow and pulled aside the wrap to reveal the curved blade. Kri jerked against her binds and stiffened. Eyes cold she glared at Iren. It was her sword. The robed figure bowed back and gladly accepted the additional gift, an apology for the extra time it took for Iren to bring the promised Shabenay.
The exchange complete, Iren and his men moved away, leaving the Shabenay and their cage in the care of this mysterious person. The figure came over and they got their first clear view of it. The pointed muzzle and round, ferret face looked up at them. "Well, well, Kisday will be quite happy to see you. He's been waiting quite some time for this." Kri and Shinkir simply stared back at her; the voice was definitely feminine, though, as with the Kierr, it was sometimes hard to tell by physical appearance in the Tynomai. "Well," she continued, "I'm sure you've had a rough trip, let's get you and the tasa'tei inside shall we?"
She moved around the wagon and urged the tasa'tei forward and on through the gate. The two Shabenay sat back and watched the vastness of the estate unfold. Large, neatly fenced fields with a few grazing Tasa'tei flanked the broad road that lead into the estate. There was a large central building that appeared as they turned to the left. It was three stories tall and took up at least two acres of land. Two smaller buildings flanked it, much less impressive, but just as ornate. Other buildings claimed their space farther off, some large and others small, there were a few watchtowers along the walls where watchmen moved within.
The sound of the tasa'tei hooves changed as they walked steadily onto the hard-packed dirt that made the floor of the large barn. They saw curious stable hands pass them to help unhitch the tasa'tei, some were human, some Kierr, and a couple of Frineir, all of varying type. Their escort appeared to be the only Tynomai, but she was undoubtedly in charge.
The Tynomai came to the back of the cage and addressed them. "Mr. Kisday is too busy to meet with you today, but I'm certain you'd be happy to know that in the meantime you will be treated to a descent meal and shown your room. In the morning you'll have breakfast and a bath." Shinkir nodded and Kri continued being puzzled, completely caught off guard and definitely not expecting to be talked to civilly. The small Tynomai woman motioned to a pair of stable hands who closed the massive doors of the barn. Two more were motioned to and they opened a door that lead to a darkened hall.
"Now, if you will kindly follow me and not give us any trouble you'll be much better off for it. I warn you that we have the same Kona root extract that the Hunter Iren uses if you decide to act foolishly." With that warning she unlatched the cage door and, with the assistance of the stable hands, lowered it to the ground. She climbed inside and cut the ropes that held the pair.
Kri rubbed her wrists and ankles a moment, watching the Tynomai uncertainly. Shinkir muttered thanks. Both were stiff and sore as they climbed out of the cage; having been cooped up for more than two weeks took its toll. Kri's legs shook unsteadily as she leaned on the cage to stand. Shinkir took her time in standing up straight before both took the first, stiff steps away from the wagon. The stable hands eyed them suspiciously offering no assistance and waiting for a false move. Even if the two Shabenay had wanted to, running or fighting was out of the question as their muscles protested even the small effort of walking upright.
The Tynomai nodded and waved them to follow her through a darkened doorway. After the initial darkness it opened up into a surprisingly well lit, but narrow passage that slanted downwards a ways before leveling out. They were followed by three of the stable hands before the door shut behind them.
"What do you think they'll do with us?" Shinkir whispered to Kri, who was ahead of her.
"I've no idea. We'll have to meet this Kisday and see."
The passageway slanted upwards again and ended in a door, their guide opened it and allowed them in.
"I will see you in the morning." The Tynomai bowed out, followed closely by the stable hands. The two Shabenay blinked after them as the door shut and a lock clicked.
Shinkir and Kri looked first at each other and then at their surroundings. The room was quite large, but sparsely furnished. Two beds lined one wall and two dressers the other. A small table stood above two stools and held a pile of food that took the pairŐs full attention. Any thoughts of what their situation might mean were temporarily banished at the chance of a descent meal, which they ate silently, but speedily before crashing, exhausted, on the beds.