Chapter 26 : Blood on the Sands
They rode for some time, Saeng clutching the back of the blue-eyed bandit, until they came to a bandit camp, and barely had they dismounted when the bandits began to argue.
“We’ve made a foolish trade,” said one.
“We should have taken the goods and killed the merchant. He will only send trouble our way.”
“Then we ride away from trouble, and get her off our hands quick,” said the blue-eyed bandit.
Saeng stood in the middle, Bellat Abi in her arms, while in an efficient flurry the bandits packed up their camp. Sweating and exhausted by the ordeals, she gratefully took a seat in the covered wagon. She did not ask where they were going, and no one told her.
“Have I made a mistake?” she asked Bellat Abi, stroking his fur rather quickly. Already regret crept through her. What sort of adventure was this, where she relied on her position and someone else’s funds to deliver her from this mess? Surely there had to be a way she could solve it herself, yet both running and waiting had no appeal. Either she betrayed her word or she betrayed her country — by forcing someone to deal with these bandits for her return, by delivering resources to bandits who would only go on to cause more trouble. What had she been thinking! She was foolish indeed.
“Mother, is this also an opportunity to learn? To better myself? I cannot see it.” Agitated and confused, she never thought she could sleep, yet after discarding some ideas she began to think of flying on the winds and soon dropped into a deep rest.
When Saeng awoke at the end of movement, it was dark and the stars shone bright above.
“Here, princess.” The blue-eyed bandit motioned her to exit the wagon, and she did so, still in the daze that follows an awakening.
The bandits had made a fire, some were eating, some were throwing dice, and she was sat on a blanket and given some water. Aware of the dark glances sent her way, Saeng didn’t dare stand up to stretch her sore muscles, or even adjust the sword in her bag where the hilt pressed sharply against her side.
The blue-eyed bandit held in front of her some bread with cheese, and she reached for it only to stop at the sharp voice of a dissenter. “Ditches and dung, you give her food? We are sure to lose on this venture.”
“She needs to be alive for ransom,” said the blue-eyed one.
“Aye, alive, not kicking. Strength’ll make her fussy.”
The blue-eyed bandit pressed the food closer and Saeng took it with a nod of thanks.
“We’ve a princess among us, men, don’t forget your manners,” someone jeered.
A few laughed and one spat, another let out a string of what were probably curses but Saeng hadn’t heard them before so they hadn’t the disturbing effect the bandit might’ve wished.
“I say,” cried the one who wished to starve her, “since we’re giving passage and all, I say the princess should entertain us. Eh, chums? Don’t we deserve some fun?”
“Silence your ugly tongues,” said the blue-eyed bandit, tossing a rock on the fire. It spattered and the other bandit stepped forward, unperturbed. Saeng imagined them as two dogs, circling each other’s territory, ready for the confrontation.
She cleared her throat. “I— it’s all right. I can sing…” They all looked at her with some measure of surprise. “…though they may not be songs of your kind,” she finished quietly.
“Methinks I should teach the princess some new tricks,” said the nasty bandit, and Saeng stared at him with wide unblinking eyes.
“Stay your distance, or I will slice your offending parts,” snapped the blue-eyed bandit, standing between them.
“Oye, I offend you? What’s about your offense? How you chose — with nay a listen to us — to leave easy bounty and stick us with sure trouble, and you won’t let us have any fun?”
“We have no time for games. Finish your meal and let’s be on.”
“What an excuse. Hear that, men, he won’t even hold up his own reasons. I’m tired of your posturing, Liyshak.”
“And I’m tired of your arguing. Back down.”
The other bandit spat. “You aren’t our leader. No one tells me what to do.” He stepped forward, and Liyshak brought up a hand.
“I warn you once.”
“I won’t hurt her, I’ll just… scare her a little, how’s that?”
“Some things are beyond the low place even we exist. I warn you twice.”
“When you get to three, do demons come to ride me away?”
“Back down. I warn you thrice.”
“Demonspawn, this isn’t about the girl! This is about you and your arrogance.”
“What do you intend to do about it? Keep prattling like an old woman?”
The other bandit drew himself up, then nodded once. “You’re right. I know how to handle this.” And from his sleeve he drew a jagged knife, the firelight glinted on the blood-stained steel. Saeng drew in a breath of cold night air mixed with ash and fire, and she clutched Bellat Abi in her lap.
“Make no mistake. This will be finished,” said Liyshak.
“You’ll be dead on the sands and left for the beasts,” said the other man.
The bandits began to jeer and to chant and to cheer and to yell, excited by the prospect of blood. The blue-eyed bandit took a plain dagger and faced the other man, they circled, and struck, and at first made light of it, then the other began speeding up his strikes and striking boldly, leaving some red bands on the skin of the blue-eyed bandit.
The tides did not so much turn as crash. In one swift motion, the blue-eyed one kicked away the other knife and struck the man in the shoulder, a truly painful and debilitating yet not fatal blow.
“Back down. I warn no more.”
“Son of a crawler and a flea!” cried the other through gritted teeth, then he switched his knife to the other hand and came again.
It was over in the moment Saeng thought she should not blink, the other bandit spread on the sands.
Not a slow death. Not a sad one. He was a robber and murderer, the lowest of the low, for sure.
The firelight glinted off her face, the growing heat of the air leaving but salt traces on her cheeks. The blue-eyed bandit looked to her, and for a moment she saw pain in his brow, then he closed his eyes and turned away. They did not speak again.