Benda woke up with a splitting headache, and immediately tried to put his hands up to his face to rub his temples and eye sockets. But he found he could not move. He was bound hand and foot, and evening was settling in.
Not far off, a small fire gave off light, warmth, and some smoke. His two Xenarth captors huddled round it, cooking on sticks what looked like skinned wild game they had presumably hunted on the open plains. Benda’s stomach growled, but he said nothing, and tried to give no indication of having come to. He looked around, but in the dark of the open plains could not tell whether they had moved at all.
In actual fact, a gurjuk — even the great gurjuks, such as Xenarths were known to train as war mounts — were neither large enough nor strong enough to carry both a Xenarth and an adult man on their backs. So while he was unconscious, Benda had been tied up to their satisfaction, and they made camp while they quarreled about what to do with their prize.
Even if he had been awake to hear the bulk of the argument, Benda would not have understood it, as the Xenarth tongue was alien and strange to him. But one of the soldiers thought they should return to Holmat territory with their prize, and use the hostage to negotiate an even greater share of the plundered treasure. The other however said that if the Holmats had sent out this spy after them to waylay them, then it was certain the tribe meant no good, and they would be killed by them on sight. But we would take a great many with us to the land of the shades, was the first soldier’s counter-argument. And as they roasted the small caprom rodents they’d caught that afternoon, just prior to encountering Benda, they both seriously considered this option. For Xenarths, to die in battle, with the corpses of tens of your enemies at your feet was one of the best possible ends to their short brutal lives.
The second soldier, however, was older and more cunning. He said instead that they should take their captive to the Squamats, and attempt to trade him there, where their mortal enemy would catch a higher price. This seemed like a good idea to both, as the only thing Xenarths cherished more than dying a glorious death in battle was being lavished with immeasurable wealth, precious metals, and jewels of all descriptions.
They talked this over a time, and the first soldier eventually pointed out the obvious: whether or not they brought the Squamats a captive member of their enemy tribe, the Xenarths themselves had been participating in raids against Squamat villages in the river valleys coming out of the mountains. And it was likely that word had reached their capital to the south already in Lake Squamat. And that there too, they were just as likely to be killed on sight.
Less likely, corrected the older, craftier soldier. For if they approached the Holmats, they would certainly be recognized at once. But if they approached the Squamats, it was entirely possible their recent deeds would remain unknown. In the end, the deciding factor boiled down to whether a friend or a foe would pay a higher price for a hostage. The first soldier said one’s countryman would pay the higher price, for the lives of one’s enemies are valued not at all.
Unless, said the second, the captive was a man of rank, which they both esteemed Benda to be on account of his fine camouflage cloak, and the harp which they had found and pulled from him when they searched his unconscious body. Therefore, said the second, the enemy Squamats would pay the higher initial price, because they would understand the significance of this hostage, and his value to their Holmat enemies.
So, even if the Holmats would pay the higher end price, the danger to the Xenarths was greater if they returned to Holmat territory. And they could use this higher estimated final value as a bargaining chip with the Squamats, who they presumed would simply see the whole thing in terms of a profitable economic transaction, as they themselves did. And they could be easily brought to understand that whatever price the Xenarths demanded, the Holmats would certainly double it when the Squamats later went to trade Benda back.
Whether this logic was entirely valid under the norms of Squamat culture is outside the point, as this chain of reasoning and argumentation was typical of Xenarths. And to a certain extent, this pragmatic, profit-driven hard-headedness — along with their natural toughness, strength, and, of course, their armor — was what drove their success as mercenaries across Kremel, and even into the Ner desert, and the regions beyond. So they decided to head due south to Lake Squamat, where they would try to trade their prisoner to whatever local chieftain they could find who seemed amenable. But of course, as Benda could not ride, they needed him in walking condition.
After their course of action had been decided, and their caproms nicely roasted, the younger of the two went over to where Benda lay (who had shut again his eyes to feign unconsciousness, still not understanding what was happening, or where they were headed). The soldier kicked him once hard in the ribs. Benda groaned and opened his eyes.
“Awake?” the Xenarth said in the common tongue of the plains, which Benda understood enough to nod. “Eat,” the soldier said, and threw a hunk of roasted caprom meat onto the dirt near Benda’s face, and walked away. Though he had to wriggle somewhat and roll onto his side to do so, Benda took it in his mouth, and chewed it hungrily.
After this, the Xenarths went back to laughing and cavorting, and gambled for a while using some golek-knuckle dice before falling asleep. The gurjuks, which had been untied to go hunt for themselves, were nowhere to be seen, and Benda too fell back to a dark and dreamless sleep.
Originally published at http://www.timboucher.ca on September 10, 2019.