"ATTACK!" Trals Scarback exploded from ambush like a ravening tyrannosaur.
The great sword Vritai the All-Cutter cleaved the hot and heavy air. Trals's snatcher leaped beside him, feathered arms spread, claws on hands and feet extended to grip and tear. His men surged from the undergrowth, swords, blowguns, and snatchers ready to slaughter the enemy.
The Slaver caravan had no time to react. Soldiers in their bronze armor lurched back from the tide of Trals's warriors. Chains jerked taut and slaves fell into the mud. The triceratops at the head of the column turned its huge, horned face and bellowed at the attacking warriors.
Trals dragged his sword through yielding air, armor, flesh, and bone. The Slaver's look of confusion congealed into death and Trals smashed the broken man into the mud. Ripping free his sword, he swung at the next enemy and slew him as well.
Now this was living!
Two more Slavers died before their swords could leave their scabbards. The third turned to parry a blow from Vritai, only to leave himself open to a lightning attack from Srav. Faster than human reflexes, the snatcher vaulted up the soldier's armor. Viciously curved talons raked at unprotected elbow, armpit, and neck. By the time Srav had reached his face, the soldier was already screaming, his tongue exposed. Narrow jaws opened and rows of recurved teeth gleamed before that feathered snout came down.
"Ambush," the Slavers wailed, "Ethlek savages," and "Trals Scarback."
Trals inhaled and dove toward his next victim.
The fire roared hot and bright in his chest now. No more need for control. No difference between one gurgling sack of meat and the next. No friends, only foes he had not yet slain. If only life could forever remain so simple.
Quilted armor split under the next sword-thrust, parted bloodily on a backhanded swing that killed the soldier's partner. The next man had not completed his turn before the blade struck, and split his skull to the teeth. Trals dipped, sidestepped, pivoted around the still-thrashing body. Lacquer and star-iron scraped bone as he swung Vritai up and brought it to clang against the spear-haft of the fifth soldier.
The spear went wide. The last thing his pitifully outmatched assailant saw was Trals's bloody teeth bared in his face.
The dying soldier's screams rose to mingle with those of his fellow Slavers, the battle cries of Trals's Ethlek warriors, the whistling of the snatchers, and the bellows of the panicked triceratops. Dappled sunlight fluttered over swinging and thrusting weapons, quilted armor, the naked limbs of slave and Eethlek. For a few moments, Trals could enjoy himself.
"Trals," a voice rose over the ring of bronze. "Trals Scarback! It's me you want, you bloody savage."
Trals spun in the mud, focused on the bearded man in the captain's tunic. "Ngarong of the Ankylosaur," he shouted across the fray. "Ready for another tryst with my blade?"
Ngarong waved his crooked Club of Office. "The Eethlek Leader is mine," he called in the Slaver language. "Come fight me, Trals, if you dare."
An Eethlek warrior could not refuse such a challenge. Trals danced around the dying men, whistling for his snatcher. Closing with his old enemy, the Leader of the Ethlek swung up his great blade.
Light and noise crashed across the sky. The sycamores shook above the heads of the fighting men. The triceratops lifted its bronze-tipped horns, suddenly quiet. The very Face of God trembled under the feet of the frozen fighters. No thunder could be so loud, or spring so from a blue sky. What on the beast-haunted Face of God had made that sound?
The moment of distraction cost Trals his victory. His blade missed Ngarong, who came up with the haft of his own weapon and hit Trals on the forehead. He stumbled back, bright vision going muddy.
A man screamed behind him, but others closed, seizing his wrists, wrenching his sword from his numb hands.
"Grab him. Grab him, you fools. Take his arms and legs. Yes you, too."
Trals was on his belly, salty mud squelching around his nose and eyes, a weight on his back and a terrible pressure around his neck.
"Trals, you treacherous barbarian, tell your men to retreat."
Trals whistled the signal that sent Srav away, into the woods. His men would do the same, hiding, waiting until they could once again be of use to him.
Ngarong breathed in his ear. A sharp hagh! Like the threat sound of his namesake ankylosaur. "Your men are quick to abandon you."
"They know I need no help. I escaped you easily enough last time." And burned down half of the city doing so. Trals let the joy of the memory stretch his face as the soldiers hoisted his face out of the mud.
Captain Ngarong of the Ankylosaur stood over him, short like most Slavers, but broad and hard in his quilted armor and red cloak. One hand rested on the butt of his holstered Club of Office, the other held the sword Vritai, which he waved as he shouted at his crew. "Someone get a cangue to put on this savage. And stop that damn grinning." He prodded Trals on the cheek with the flat of the blade. "This time, there are no pirates around for you to manipulate. And no naïve young women for you to seduce into setting you free."
Trals laughed. He had forgotten about that. "And how is your niece, Ngarong?"
The captain gritted his teeth. "In a convent."
"Ah well." Trals did not resist as they forced his wrists and neck into the grooves in the lower half of the cangue. "Enforced, lifelong chastity seems harsh, but I ruined her for other men anyway."
"Devils and beasts, I forgot how aggravating you are." Ngarong rubbed his short beard, running gauntleted fingers over the scarred ridge where the copper hair never grew. "Close the damn cangue."
The top half of the miniature stockade swung down and the lock clanked closed. Once Trals's head and hands were safely pinned, Ngarong knelt in the mud, brought face close enough for Trals to count the sweat drops, to see the lines of regret and worry around the eyes. To bite off the man's nose. No, that would benefit him nothing.
"You are captured," said Ngarong. "Your friends have abandoned you, I have taken back the sword you stole. Why don't you despair? Why don't you ask for mercy? A chance at redemption? Do you truly feel nothing?"
"I feel an awful lot like killing you, but then, I feel that way about everybody." Trals grinned at his enemies while they hoisted him to his feet and shoved him into line with the much-depleted caravan.
The blood-lust was gone now, the fire banked into cool calculation. Trals was not defeated. These Slavers would die as the Slavers who had first taken him had died. Once again, their city would burn.
"Captain," someone yelled. "Captain, the Tongue Box speaks."
Trals pricked up his ears. This expedition had its own Tongue Box? Ngarong must have risen high indeed, to merit instantaneous communication with his masters.
"Tell the angel of the Box to convey my good tidings to the Admiral,"
Ngarong was saying. "We have captured Trals Scarback and are bringing him back to Luna Meridiana for trial."
If they valued their lives, these fools would better kill him and pack his head in salt mud. Trals stared at the bristled tail of the triceratops before him and marched, listening.
"No sir. New orders from the Admiral. The angels speak of a great event in the heavens near our current location. We are ordered to investigate and report our findings."
Trals almost laughed aloud while Ngarong cursed his superiors. So they would find the source of the thunder in the blue sky, would they? What was this but yet another opportunity for Trals to bend the situation to his purposes, to escape, to retrieve the sword Vritai, to exact his revenge?
Trals grinned in his bonds, anticipating the glorious slaughter to come.