Sitting in the treetops, Jorani quietly kept watch on the road while ignoring the sounds behind him. Ral and Chey sat together behind him, humming in harmony with fingers interlocked, smiling daftly at one another. He’d never understand how that idiot blockhead seduced a beauty like Chey. Any man who claimed to understand women was a liar and a cheat.
Like Sorya and Anrhi, those two lovely little maidens, acting all friendly and sweet around him. Grabbing his arms and hugging him, their eyes lighting up when they saw him, only to push him away when he tried to slip into their beds, scolding and humiliating him in front of his men. Despicable is what it were, if they didn’t want to sleep with him, why did they act like that? It was embarrassing getting thrown out on his ass, with both yelling and hollering about family ties. What family ties? So they might share a father, who cares? Was he never supposed to sleep with any half-rats just in case? What about mice or stoats? They might be his cousins, should he avoid sleeping with them too?
Okay, maybe he shouldn’t have tried to sleep with both at once, but a man can’t be blamed for asking.
Feeling like everyone was talking about his mishap, he slipped away to keep watch and let the laughs die down, too embarrassed to show his face. Ral followed along with Chey, as if having to hear the two of them in the tent next to his wasn’t torturous enough. Now he had to endure more of their sugary sweet dialogue, all ‘hurr-durr yer so pretty’ and ‘oh so romantic tee-hee’. All the giggles and laughs were enough to make a man vomit.
When was it gonna be his turn to find his special lady?
The day wore on as he waited, their target late to arrive. He’d timed it to hit them right before dinner, taking advantage of their long day’s march. It was a tricky thing, what with delays and such, but it was well worth the extra effort. They’d been changing things up lately, Ravil’s calculating mind at work, making sure they didn’t fall into a predictable pattern. The man’s heart was a thousand times darker than his skin, and Jorani wasn’t fooled by his bright, easy smile; Ravil was a killer through and through. Along with Bulat, they fit right in among the fellowship, drinking, gambling, and fighting with the best of them.
From behind him, a steady thumping started up and he froze in place. They couldn’t be doing that, not here in the trees… Chey’s a beautiful woman, might as well take a peek. Cautiously turning about, he blinked in confusion, staring at Ral and Chey sitting side by side, his mind taking a moment to figure it out. “Keep it down,” he hissed, sorely disappointed. “Ye’ll give away our position with yer damn tail wagging.”
“Sorry Jor.” Ral had the good sense to look abashed while Chey made a rude gesture. “Me tail wags when I’m happy, and I ain’t ever been happier than with Chey.”
“You sweet-talker you. Come here.” The two shared a kiss and the thumping started up again before Jorani ordered them back to the waiting area. Pulling out his prized possession, he checked the time on his pocket watch, pilfered from the first shipment. A gift for the Magistrate of Shen Yun, according to the inscription, beautifully crafted and hand-wound, he glanced lovingly at the gold frame and bejewelled arms, telling him it was twenty-two minutes and seventeen seconds past the seventeenth hour of the day. Knowing the exact time brought him so much joy, and he half-smiled unable to believe his change of luck. A month ago he’d have been robbed and beaten for the watch, but now, no one dared touch him.
Who’d have known getting captured would be so lucrative for his career?
Spotting their quarry, Jorani grinned and made a twittering bird-call, almost indistinguishable from the normal bird songs so often ignored by guard and bandit alike. Hearing the replies, he stayed still as possible and waited, his heartbeat rising as the caravan approached from afar. The rising dust clouds meant there were plenty of mounted guards this time around, the Council growing irate at his repeated robberies over the last month, not to mention the six councilmen he had executed.
And today, if his connections from Sanshu were right, he’d add a seventh councilman to that list. It was a guilty pleasure to hear his bounty soar higher every week, already at twenty-five gold, on-par with real killers, like the Red Devil Gao Qiu, Big-eyed Kang, or the Laughing Dragon. Even Yo Ling was only worth five hundred gold. From no-name thug in a third-rate gang, to Hangman Jorani, leader of the Mother’s Militia, worth one-twentieth of the Spectre. Not too bad for one month’s work.
The convoy moved past him at a slow and steady march, giving him ample time to study it closely. Close to eight hundred guards in matching hooded cloaks, defending twenty-eight wagons. Only thirty guards per wagon, that was too few. Maybe the Council hoped the eight-hundred strong force would be enough to hold his Militia back, but after receiving an influx of former Butchers to add to his ranks, his forces were close to a thousand strong. Their numbers were no secret, why would the Council risk a huge convoy like this?
His eyes alighted on one cloaked individual and then another as he chuckled in understanding. So that’s why. As soon as the convoy passed him, he scrambled down the tree and mounted his horse, speeding west to where his comrades waited down the road. Dismounting, he quickly found Ravil and motioned for him to follow. “I’ve some friends I want properly greeted. bring yer best shots.”
Falling in behind him, Ravil gathered his sharpshooters and followed Jorani. “What’s the word, Hangman?”
Whispering, Jorani explained the situation. “The guards are all dressed the same but they’re two who give me a bad feeling. Things’ll go smoother if they’re feathered before we start. One’s riding a chestnut next to the third row of wagons, another towards the end on a piebald. Easy enough to spot em, they’re sitting like they’re smuggling a spear up their ass, noses held high like their shit don’t stink.”
“You got it, boss.” Smiling amicably, Ravil passed along the orders without question. Say what you will about the ferocious killer, Ravil played his part well. No one knew he was the real boss around here, and Jorani only a front-man. He was given plenty of free rein, although Ravil gave plenty of much-needed advice regarding real combat and training, Jorani happy to take all the help he could get. He was out of his depth now that he’d been forced to declare war on the Council. He was working on learning Sending, far more useful than anything else within reach. Maybe after all this, Officer Rain would take him in a part of his retinue.
A man can hope.
As the convoy marched past once again, Ravil gave the signal and a dozen arrows lodged inside both targets. The call to arms went out as trees fell, blocking the convoy in on both ends. His Militia yelled as they moved in to surround the convoy from both sides of the road, carrying fences of forward-facing spikes to keep the horses from charging through. The guards reacted slowly, their horses spooked by the noise as they settled into a poorly organized defense, their leaders dead and without a clear chain of command. That’s the problem with bandits, if they were disciplined or skilled, they probably wouldn’t be bandits.
Standing in plain sight, Jorani called out, “The Mother’s Militia is here, but not for the lives of bandits. Surrender and most will live, but resist and I’ll hang every last one of ye if need be. What wretched group of former comrades do ye all hail from?”
The guards glanced around at the superior numbers, every Militiaman armed with a ranged weapon, be it bow, sling, or spear, ready to launch a hail of deadly hail upon them. In contrast, the ‘guards’ were poorly armed and armoured, wearing their regular leathers beneath their cloaks, the Council too cheap to spring for even the cheapest of defensive gear. Copper wise and gold foolish, the epitome of greed.
Banditry was much easier when you had the numbers.
One guard removed his hood, revealing a scarred face and gap-toothed smile. “This one be light-fingered Yu, and with my comrades we make up the Sharktooth Syndicate, working under Big-eyed Kang.” Yu glanced at one of the pin-cushioned leaders, now dead as a door nail. “Er, used to, at least, he’s not doing too well these days. Ran across you Freebooter’s once or twice in my day.”
A second guard chimed in, this one with a lovely, lilting voice and feminine frame, cradling the second fallen commander. “We’re Onyx Bears, and this here is Ulfsaar the Voracious. I am Neera, second-in-command, and we surrender. I beg you, send a healer, he’s still breathing.” With the amount of concern in her voice, it seemed she was his wife or something. Damn it all, seems like everyone had a lady-love except Jorani.
“Dismount, lay down yer weapons and bring out the Councilman. Ain’t got no healer, but we’ve a few physicians.” A shame they couldn’t claim the bounty on Big-Eyed Kang, but the man was a notorious rapist, and would have died regardless. Ulfsaar’s reputation was no less fearful, but he knew where the line was. The rest was routine work by now, almost boring. Amid the loud din of weapons piling on the ground, the guards dragged out a dandy who screamed about vengeance and mercy. Sharkteeth and Black Bears, the Militia continued to grow with every victory. It was unpleasant putting comrades to the oath, and worse giving em the noose, but orders were orders, and it’d be suicide to cross the Undying Savage. The rumours about him going missing or dying worried Jorani, but Ravil and the others seemed unfazed, so he continued to play his part. Maybe it was another part of the ruse, although he’d no idea how it all came together.
After taking care of the dirty business, they packed up the goods and rode off, taking a wide route back to the former freebooter hideout after an easy day’s work. Who knew leading was so easy? With Ravil, Jester Wang, and Kabi settling in the new arrivals and readying their plunder to be sent north, there was little left for Jorani to do. It was more about giving the right people the right jobs, and letting them take care of the details on their own.
Strolling around the camp, he made his way to the medical station to check on Ulfsaar. The half-bear former bandit leader lay on a cot, snoring fitfully as the tiny bed buckled beneath his massive frame. Sitting at his side was the woman who spoke up, another half-bear who glared angrily at Jorani as he approached. Damn me, but she’s a strapping lass, a full head taller than him. “How’s he doing?”
“He’ll live. Barely.” The accusation hung silently in the air, and Jorani shrugged it off. See, these two half-bears were probably lovers, ain’t nothing wrong with that.
“Good, good. When he’s up and about, send him over for a word.”
Losing interest, he sauntered out of the tent, stopping as the woman asked, “How’d you know? We were all cloaked, but you picked the two threats to your people, the only two warriors capable of condensing their Aura. Is it true? Does the Mother really speak to you and guide your hand?”
The question caught him by surprise, her wide-eyed gaze causing him to laugh uncomfortably. “Is that what they’re saying about me?” The whole Mother’s Militia had just been an angle, who knew it’d work so well? He barely even prayed anymore, thought the religion was a fairy tale.
“You’ve hit ten Imperial convoys you’re still breathing. Everyone knows you don’t fuck with Imperials, and you’ve been dicking them hard for a month now. How else to explain it?”
Semantics and Politics. “Well when ye put it like that, then yea, maybe Mum is lookin’ out fer me.” Grinning, he pulled up a chair. “As fer spottin’ Big-headed Kang and Hungry Ulf here, like ye said, I hit nine convoys before today’s, my numbers are no secret. Fer the Council to send so few guards meant they had an ace up their sleeve. Didn’t take long to spot him, Ulf don’t blend well with common bandits. Easier to ask a tiger to change its stripes.”
She studied him closely as he leaned back in his chair, feeling proud of his accomplishments. No one else had said anything, but if he hadn’t seen it, then this could have gone poorly. Two well-known bandits, both capable of condensing an Aura, and not even a ‘good job’ from Ravil. A crime is what it was. “You’re not what I expected. My husband called you a madman for putting the province at risk.”
Damn, so they really were married. A shame. “Ain’t nothin’ mad about taking on the Council, they’re nothing more than parasites and leeches. The military supplies still make their way to the Bridge, after a small detour around Shen Yun to avoid questions.” She’s too tall and… sturdy, anyways. She’d probably break his hips.
Might be worth it though, a real beauty.
“Boss?” Ravil poked his head in and waved him over. “Ye got a visitor. Make no promises, and try not to offend him else we’re all dead.” After that ominous statement, Ravil clammed up and Jorani mentally prepared himself, wondering who could make the terrifying killer nervous. It couldn’t be the Spectre could it? He wouldn’t bother stepping out for something small like this.
With only seconds to ponder, he stepped into his tent and gagged at the fetid stench of death. A wild-haired old man sat in his chair and laughed thunderously, at ease in the carnage around him. “Good to meet ye. This old warrior’s name is Lei Gong.” With a swig of wine, he sighed in contentment. “Good, good, I can’t seem to have a drink without someone nagging me these days.”
“By-By all means, drink as much as you’d like. I’ll send for more.” The words slipped out of Jorani’s mouth as he did his best to ignore the charred corpses littering the area. “Food too, if you’d like. Maybe a change in venue so as not to spoil your appetite?” Stomach churning at the smell of burnt flesh, he prayed to the Mother that Ral would get away. Chey was smart, she’d see that idiot out of this mess.
“Ah, calm yer self lad. If I wanted ye dead, we wouldn’t be talking, now would we? I’d have called the thunder down atop ye and been on me merry way.” Arriving at his side in the blink of an eye, Lei Gong clapped him on the shoulder and led him out of the tent. “Truth be told, that is why I came here. Soldiers have it hard enough, ain’t no call to be soldiering hungry. Arrived two weeks back and found ye sending everything north and west, so I followed it. No sense letting good supplies go to rot, got plenty of warriors waitin’ on it.”
“Honoured senior, I’d never take from the Imperial Army. I’ve nothing but the utmost respect f- ”
“Don’t grovel boy, just listen.” Lei Gong dropped all pretense, Sending his voice into Jorani’s mind. “Yer working fer Major Yuzhen, ain’t ye? A clever one she is, stealing from the Council to feed her soldiers. It’s what those rat finks deserve, reap what you sow is what I say. Er, no offence to ye. Most of my best soldiers were half-beast, and I’m proud to have served with them. High time more of em took office, I’m all for it. Ye need to be more careful though, those corpses back in yer tent are Council spies, carrying compasses that can give away your location, maybe some of the loot too. I’ll teach ye how to suss em out and nullify them.”
Relief flooded through him and if not for Lei Gong’s iron grip, Jorani would have collapsed on the spot as his legs turned to jelly. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he spoke in a quiet whisper, without denying Lei Gong’s guess. True, his actions benefited the Major, but he didn’t work for her. “Thank ye kindly honoured senior, this one -”
“Bah, enough with the honoured senior, I ain’t that old!” Lei Gong roared loudly and everyone turned to stare. The tension ratcheted as he huffed, his pale, wrinkled face red as an apple. Laughing boisterously, he brought Jorani into an embrace. “Yer Hangman Jorani of the Mother’s Militia, ye call me Lei Gong, no need for formalities. We’re all comrades, ain’t we?” The old man’s voice sounded in his head once more. “Now where’s the food, we’ve plenty to speak about. Yer running a shit-show around here and anything worth doing is worth doing right.”
His fear dissipating, Jorani ordered food and wine and another tent erected. An Ascendant, the Lord of Thunder, Lei Gong himself, just publicly claimed they were equals and was here to advise him, perhaps even help. His Militia was close to 1,500 strong and now counted an expert warrior among their ranks. The common people thought him blessed by the Mother, and he was fast becoming a believer.
Who knows, maybe afterwards, he’d see if Ulf’s lovely wife wanted to have a roll in hay. It was worth a try, with the way things were going, it seemed his luck was at an all time high.
What’s the worst that could happen?
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