Whoa, wait a minute! Is it Saturday already?
Nope, even better! It’s my birthday!
And in typical birthday tradition,
the birthday boy will now give birthday
presents to all his closet friends…
That’s you guys.
That means one bonus chapter of
The Protector and the Peacemaker,
free of charge!
Porter couldn’t help but feel guilty as he crept through the forest behind Gwinn. Sarah had only wanted to help. Still, he’d done the right thing by leaving her with the others, right? He shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand. He’d told her he would need a clear head to do this. He couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by doing exactly what he’d done to keep himself from being distracted.
Gwinn moved with astounding stealth despite his large size. His six paws touched the ground silently, not disturbing a single leaf or twig. Porter tried to mimic him, but compared to the wampus cat he sounded like a stampede. After forty five minutes of walking like this, Gwinn stopped and motioned for Porter to lower himself to the ground. The boy lay down on his stomach and continued to follow him, pulling himself forward with his forearms. This was slower going, but in a few minutes he began to make out voices ahead.
“Get the freaks some food already!” a gruff voice called out. “We can’t sell them if they’re starved to death!”
In the distance, Porter could see light. His stomach began to turn flip flops with the knowledge that he was now on enemy territory. It was kinda funny, he thought. After everything he’d done, he would have thought he’d be used to things like this.
“There are lots of cages in the Caravan,” Gwinn whispered over his shoulder. “I don’t know which one Tick is in, so we’ll have to move quickly and inspect them until we find him.”
Porter nodded his understanding just as the first few wagons came into view. They were brightly painted and had bars on both sides, like they were transporting circus animals— which, Porter reminded himself, was exactly what they thought they were doing. As he watched, a shaved dwarf waddled his way to the last cage in line, carrying a large pot of food with him. He quickly ladled a bowl full of slop and passed it between the bars, which the Mythic inside accepted, all without a single word.
“Why doesn’t he run?” Porter whispered.
“Because he knows it would be pointless,” Gwinn answered. “Do you really think escaping from the Caravan would be that easy?”
Porter fell silent and continued to watch as the dwarf made his way from cage to cage, silently passing out food.
“So,” he said at last, “how are we doing this?”
“We need to do it now,” Gwinn replied. “The Caravan never stops moving except for short breaks like this. We won’t be able to sneak around while they’re on the move. If they get going again before we get my son out of there, we’ll have to retreat and wait for them to stop again.”
“All right,” Porter agreed. “We should wait until the dwarf moves away from us, and then we can sneak underneath the wagons.”
“Good idea,” Gwinn nodded.
It took several minutes, but the dwarf finally moved far enough away that they couldn’t see him anymore. A few slave traders still milled around the area, but they didn’t seem to be paying very close attention. Gwinn motioned that he would go first, and then crept forward slowly, keeping his belly close to the ground. Porter sucked in his breath anxiously. Gwinn’s snow-white fur was even more noticeable than Faska’s cloak, especially in broad daylight. All it would take was a casual glance in his direction and the slave traders would spot him. Luckily, they were more concerned with their own conversations than they were with doing their jobs, and Porter led out a sigh of relief when the wampus cat darted forward and slid underneath the closest wagon without being noticed.
Now it was his turn. Trying to move as silently as Gwinn had, Porter made his way forward, using the trees to hide himself. His foot nudged a loose stone, sending it skittering down the side of the hill, and he froze, clenching his teeth.
“Hey!” one of the slave traders called. Porter looked frantically from side to side, trying to figure out who had spotted him, but realized that the guards were looking in the other direction.
“That one’s trying to pick its lock!” another shouted, and the small band of slave traders took off running further down the train.
Porter stood still for a moment, unable to believe his incredible luck. Then, realizing he was wasting time, he sprinted forward and ducked underneath the wagon where Gwinn was waiting. From further down the train, they heard the crack of a whip.
“They’re distracted for the moment,” Gwinn said. “We need to move quickly and take advantage of it.”
Porter nodded and rolled to the side so that he came out from under the wagon. Getting to his knees, he poked his head up through the bars. Inside was a creature that looked like a combination of a bee and a woman—definitely not Tick. The bee-lady looked at him, confused, and Porter quickly put his fingers to his lips before ducking back underneath the cart. Gwinn, he saw, had already gone ahead to the next wagon was doing the same thing. He shook his head when he came back down, and motioned for Porter to keep moving forwards.
Crawling on his stomach, Porter made it to the fourth cart in the train, while Gwinn stayed behind to check the third. He was about to roll out from underneath it again when he paused, and realized he could hear voices drawing nearer. He poked his head out, and saw a group of three slave traders making their way back towards the end of the Caravan. Porter went back underneath the wagon and checked the other side. It was still clear for the moment, and so he rolled out and looked into the cage.
This time, he found a man with blue hair and green skin. When Porter poked his head up to look through the bars, the man jumped in fright. Porter quickly motioned for him to be quiet, but the man continued to stare at him. Then, he hurried to the side of the cage.
“Who are you looking for?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“I…” Porter stuttered, caught off guard. “What?”
“You are not one of them,” the green skinned man hastily reasoned, “which means that you must be here to rescue somebody. Who?”
“His name is Tick,” Porter answered before realizing that names would likely have no meaning to the other captives. “He’s a boy, about eight, and he has a white tail.”
“Seven wagons ahead of me,” the man said, pointing further up the train. “There’s a little girl with strange ears in there with him.”
Porter turned to look, and realized that there was another band of slave traders casually making their way towards the back of the Caravan.
“Thank you!” he whispered, and went back underneath the wagon. He beckoned for Gwinn to join him.
“The Mythic in the cage above us says that Tick is seven wagons that way,” he explained once the cat was within hearing distance. “And that there’s a little girl in there with him.”
Gwinn nodded and immediately pushed past Porter to make his way further up the line. Porter followed him as quickly as he could, counting the wagons they passed underneath. One… Two… Three…
They reached the seventh cart without incident. Porter raised his head and pressed his ear against the bottom of the wagon, but couldn’t hear anything that told him whether Tick was in there or not. He poked his head out from under the cart, and was dismayed to see that slave traders were approaching the wagon on both sides.
“That’s all of them,” he heard one say as several pairs of feet paused just beside their wagon. “Tell the boss we’re ready so we can get a move on!”
One of the slave traders ran off towards the front of the train, but the others stayed where they were. Porter shot a wary glance at Gwinn, but the wampus cat didn’t return it. He could sense Gwinn’s tension. His son was right above them, and he couldn’t do a thing to help him without attracting the attention of the entire Caravan.
A call came from the front of the wagon train, and one of the sets of feet on Porter’s left hopped into the driver’s seat. With a crack of the reigns, the wagon began to roll forward. Porter, realizing that his hiding spot was about to leave him behind, did the only thing he could think to do: he grabbed the edge of the wagon and let himself be dragged along underneath it. The forest floor, covered in sticks and stones, scratched at his clothes, but he hung on. Gwinn rolled onto his back and sank the claws on all of his paws into the bottom of the wagon, hoisting himself off the ground. And even then, the other slave traders didn’t leave the wagon’s side. They walked alongside the wagon, as if guarding it, though their idle chitchat confirmed that they didn’t think anything was going to happen.
This was getting them nowhere, Porter thought. He grunted softly, catching Gwinn’s attention, and then jerked his head to the side, indicating what he wanted to do. Gwinn’s eyes widened with apprehension, but he didn’t do anything to stop him. Taking a deep breath and steeling his nerves, Porter let go of the wagon and rolled out from underneath it. Before anyone could turn around see him lying on the ground, he jumped to his feet and started walking alongside the cart in what he hoped was an inconspicuous manner. Just as he’d hoped, nobody gave him a second glance, mistaking him for another slave trader. Gwinn stayed under the wagon, out of sight.
As he walked, Porter turned his head to look into the cage, and nearly gasped when he saw Tick sitting inside. He was only wearing his shorts again, just like he had been when Porter had first found him, but that was of little concern right now. What did catch his attention, though, were the new scars that crisscrossed his back.
As he looked, Tick glanced over at him. At first, he didn’t recognize Porter. Why would he? Marching alongside a gang of slave traders would surely be the last place the little chimera would expect him to be. But then comprehension slowly dawned on his face, and he sat up, jostling the girl awake with eyes as wide as dinner plates. Porter shook his head and looked straight ahead, hoping that Tick would get the message and not blow his cover. Luckily, Tick was a smart boy, and he kept his mouth shut.
As he walked, Porter began to rack his brains for a plan. He was here, and Tick knew it. Leaving and coming back later wasn’t an option anymore. He had to break him out and get him away from the Caravan, and he had to do it now. That was going to be next to impossible with the wagons moving, though. He needed a way to stop the Caravan again without arousing suspicion. He eyed the wagon, and an idea slowly began to form in his head. It was a long shot, but he didn’t have many other options…
Hoping that Gwinn would be able to keep himself hidden in the commotion that would undoubtedly follow, Porter discreetly cupped his hands together and thrust them forward at the wagon. A strong gust of wind was sent underneath the cart, and it struck the front wheel on the opposite side.
The wind slammed into the wheel, snapping it clean off its axle. The cart wavered for a moment, and then toppled over, its front corner crashing into the ground. Porter gasped as he watched Tick and the girl topple head over heels to the front of the cage. He hadn’t meant for that to happen— he’d only wanted to make it swerve so that the driver would stop! Sure enough, though, the entire wagon train came to a halt. Gwinn still clung to the bottom of the cart, but luckily nobody saw him as they were all running to the other side of the wagon to see if the driver was all right. He shot Porter a venomous glare, and all he could do was shrug apologetically.
“What happened?” a man demanded, making his way to the wagon from the front of the train.
“I don’t know!” the man who had been driving it said, examining the broken wheel in confusion. “It just broke off!”
The man, who Porter assumed must be the one in charge, glared at the driver for a moment, and then punched him in the face.
“Idjit!” he shouted. “How many times have I told you to secure that wheel? Now we’ll have to stow those freaks in another cage until you get it fixed!” He pointed at a nearby slave trader. “You, get them out of there and into another cage!”
The slave trader hustled to as directed. As he unlocked the cage door, Tick shot another look back at Porter. Porter, hoping nobody would notice, gave him a quick encouraging nod.
Go along with it, he urged him in his head. I’ll be right here!
The slave trader reached inside and grabbed Tick by the shoulder and hauled him roughly out of the cage. When he reached back inside for the girl, she gave a high pitched squeal of fright and leaped over his hand. She jumped right over his head, landing on the ground behind him, and took off running.
“Somebody grab that thing!” the boss shouted in outrage. No less than half a dozen slave traders went chasing after her. The girl was fast, but they quickly caught up to her and tackled her to the ground.
“Manchi!” Tick cried out in distress.
The slave traders hauled the girl back as she kicked and screamed, trying to break free again.
“Let me go!” she shouted, though they paid her no heed.
“Somebody take it,” one of the slave traders holding her called. “It’s slipperier than a fish!”
Seeing his chance, Porter stepped forward, making sure to keep his head down, and held out his hands to take her. Just as he’d hoped, they handed her over without question. The girl began to kick him and beat him with her fists wherever she could reach, but Porter forced himself to put up with it as he followed the other slave trader down the Caravan.
“What the—” he heard a slave trader exclaim behind him. “There’s something on the bottom of the wagon!”
Porter spun around just as Gwinn released his grip on the wagon and reared up on his back legs. Giving the slave traders a fierce wildcat roar, he drew his sword. Without waiting to see what happened, Porter turned and kicked the slave trader who held Tick with all his might, sending him sprawling on the ground.
“Come on, run!” he yelled. Tick needed no encouragement, and they ran for the trees as quickly as they could. The girl hugged Porter as he clutched her to his chest, burying her face in his shoulder from fear. Behind them, they could hear the sounds of battle: Gwinn’s sword clashing with other weapons, and spells being cast back and forth. It didn’t matter, though. Gwinn would have wanted Porter to get his son out of there safe, even if it cost him his own life.
“Porter!” Tick yelled as he ran. “What about the others?”
“We can’t worry about them, Tick,” Porter answered. “We have to get you out of here!”
To his surprise, Tick skidded to a stop. Porter did the same, nearly losing his balance and dropping the girl.
“We can’t leave them here,” Tick insisted. “We have to help!”
Porter shook his head. “Tick, I’m sorry, but we have to go now!”
“But…” Tick protested. “All we ever do is run.”
Despite the circumstances, Porter looked back at the Caravan. Flashes of light were coming from between the wagons. Shaking his head, he tried to take another step backwards…
Tick was right. Every time something happened, they ran. They never stayed to help anyone. How many people had died because of that? How could he say he was trying to save the Mythics when he always chose to save himself?
“All right,” he said at last, even though he knew he was going to regret it later. “I’ll help them. You stay here with her.”
Again, Tick shook his head. “I’m coming with you!”
This time, Porter shook his head right back. “Not a chance. I came all this way to save you, so I’m not going to bring you right back into the danger!”
Tick didn’t argue, so Porter gently pried the girl away from him and set her on the ground. Her eyes were bloodshot and tears were running down her cheeks. He knelt down in front of her and spoke to her in his most comforting voice.
“Listen to me,” he said. “You’re going to be fine. I’m going to go back and help the others. Just stay here with Tick and hide, all right?”
“Hide where?” the girl asked between sobs.
Porter looked up. The trees were rapidly losing their leaves for the oncoming winter, but there was still enough coverage up there to hide a little girl.
“Can you climb?” he asked. She nodded in reply. “Then climb up into one of those trees, and don’t come down until I come get you, all right?”
“Don’t leave me here,” the pleaded, her voice almost inaudible with terror. “Please!”
This time, Tick stepped forward. He grabbed the girl by her shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. “Manchi, this is Porter. He’s the hero I’ve been telling you about! If he says you’ll be all right, then you’ll be all right. Now go!”
The girl needed no further prompting. She turned and scrambled up the nearest tree faster than Porter would have thought possible. Once she was safely concealed by the leaves, he turned to Tick.
“If you want me to stay here, you’ll have to catch me!” he said instead, and took off running back toward the Caravan.
NEXT TIME: The crap has hit the fan, ladies and gentlemen! Porter managed to get Tick out of the Caravan all right, but it looks like the chimera kid is determined to help the other slaves. Will Porter be able to protect him while also freeing the captives, or will he have to choose one or the other?