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"We should eat them now, before they die and go bad," a gruff voice said.
Richard was only distantly aware of the low buzz of voices. Still only half conscious, he wasn't able to figure out who was talking, much less make sense of what they were talking about, but he was aware enough to be disturbed by their predatory tone.
"I think we should trade them," a second man said as he tightened the knot in the rope he had looped around Richard's ankles.
"Trade them?" the first asked in a heated voice. "Look at the bloody blankets they were wrapped in and the blood all over the floor of the wagon. They'd likely die before we could ever trade them, and then they'd go to waste. Besides, how could we carry them both? The horses for their soldiers and the wagon are all gone, along with anything else of value."
The second man let out an unhappy sigh. "Then we should eat the big one before anyone else shows up. We could carry the smaller one easier and then trade her."
"Or save her and eat her later."
"We'd be better off trading her. When else would we ever get a chance like this to get as much as she would fetch?"
As the two men argued, Richard tried to reach out to the side to touch Kahlan lying close up against him, but he couldn't. He realized that his wrists were bound tightly together with a coarse rope. He instead pushed at her with his elbow. She didn't respond.
Richard knew that he needed to do something, but he also knew that he would first need to summon not just his senses, but his strength, or he would have no chance. He felt worse than weak. He felt feverish with an inner sickness that had not only drained his strength but left his mind in a numb fog.
He lifted his head a little and squinted in the dim light, trying to see, trying to get his bearings, but he couldn't really make out much of anything. When his head pushed up against something, he realized that he and Kahlan were covered with a stiff tarp. Out under the bottom edge he could see a pair of vague, dark silhouettes at the end of the wagon beyond his feet. One man stepped closer and lifted the bottom of the tarp while the other looped a rope around Kahlan's ankles and tied it tight, the way they had done with Richard.
Through that opening Richard could see that it was night. The full moon was up, but its light had a muted quality to it that told him the sky was overcast. A slow drizzle drifted through the still air. Beyond the two figures a murky wall of spruce trees rose up out of sight.
Kahlan didn't move when Richard pushed his elbow a little more forcefully against her ribs. Her hands, like his, lay nested at her belt line. His worry about what might be wrong with her had him struggling to gather his senses. He could see that she was at least breathing, although each slow breath was shallow.
As he gradually regained consciousness, Richard realized that besides feeling weak with fever of some sort, he hurt all over from hundreds of small wounds. Some of them still oozed blood. He could see that Kahlan was covered with the same kinds of cuts and puncture wounds. Her clothes were soaked in blood.
But it was not only the blood on the two of them that worried him. Damp air rolling in under the tarp carried an even heavier smell of blood from out beyond the men. There had been people with them, people who had come to help them. His level of alarm rose past his ability to gather his strength.
Richard could feel the lingering effects of being healed, and he recognized the shadowy touch of the woman who had been healing him, but since he still ached from cuts and bruises, he knew that while the healing had been started, it hadn't gone beyond that start, much less been completed.
He wondered why.
On his other side, the side away from Kahlan, he heard something dragged across the floor of the wagon.
"Look at this," the man with the gruff voice said as he pulled it out. For the first time, Richard could see the size of the man's muscled arms as he reached in and lifted the object he had dragged closer.
The other man let out a low whistle. "How could they have missed that? For that matter, how could they have missed these two?"
The bigger man glanced around. "Messy as everything looks, it must have been the Shun-tuk."
The other's voice lowered with sudden concern. "Shun-tuk? You really think so?"
"From what I know of their ways, I'd say it was them."
"What would the Shun-tuk be doing out here?"
The big man leaned toward his companion. "Same as us. Hunting for those with souls."
"This far from their homeland? That seems unlikely."
"With the barrier wall now breached, what better place to hunt for people with souls? The Shun-tuk would go anywhere, do anything, to find such people. Same as us." He lifted an arm around in a quick gesture. "We came out to hunt these new lands, didn't we? So would the Shun-tuk."
"But they have a vast domain. Are you sure they would venture out?"
"Their domain may be vast and they may be powerful, but the thing they want most they don't have. With the barrier wall breached they can hunt for it, now, the same as us, the same as others."
The other man's gaze darted about. "Even so, their domain is distant. Do you really think it could be them? This far out from their homeland?"
"I've never encountered the Shun-tuk myself, and I hope not to." The big man raked his thick fingers back through his wet, stringy hair as he scanned the dark line of trees. "But I've heard that they hunt other half people just for the practice until they can find those with souls.
"This looks like their way. They usually hunt at night. With prey out in the open like this, they strike fast and hard with overwhelming numbers. Before anyone has time to see them coming, or to react, it's over. They usually eat some of those they fall upon, but they take most for later."
"Then what about these two? Why would they leave them?"
"They wouldn't. In their rush to eat some of those they captured and to take the rest back with them, they must have missed these two hidden under the tarp."
The smaller man picked at a splinter at the end of the wagon bed for a moment as he carefully scanned the countryside. "I hear it told that Shun-tuk often come back to check for returning stragglers."
"You heard true."
"Then we should be away from here in case they come back. Once they are overcome with the blood lust, they would devour us without hesitation."
Richard felt powerful fingers grip his ankle. "I thought you wanted to eat this one before he dies and his soul can leave him."
The other man took hold of Richard's other ankle. "Maybe we should take him to a safe place, first, where the Shun-tuk wouldn't be so likely to come across us and interfere. I would hate to be surprised once we get started. We can get a good price for the other. There be those who would pay anything for one with a soul. Even the Shun-tuk would bargain for such a person."
"That's a dangerous idea." He thought it over briefly. "But you're right, the Shun-tuk would pay a fortune." The wolfish hunger was back in the bigger man's voice. "This one, though, is mine."
"There's plenty for both of us."
The other grunted. He seemed already lost in private cravings. "But only one soul."
"It belongs to the one who devours it."
"Enough talk," the big man growled. "I want at him."
As Richard was dragged out of the wagon, he was still struggling to gather his wits in order to make some kind of sense of the strange things he was hearing. He remembered well the warnings about the dangers of the Dark Lands. He was aware enough to realize that for the moment his life depended on not letting the two men know that he was beginning to come around.
As he was swiftly dragged by his ankles clear of the wagon bed, his upper body dropped to the ground. Even though he tried to round his shoulders, with his hands tied he couldn't use them or his arms effectively to keep his head from whacking the rocky ground. The pain was shockingly sharp, followed by an enveloping, inviting blackness that he knew would be fatal if he couldn't fight it off.
He focused on the surroundings, looking for an escape route, to try to keep his mind engaged. From what he was able to see in the murky moonlight, the wagon sat alone and desolate in the wilderness. The horses were gone.
While he didn't see anyone else about, he did spot bones nearby. The bones were not bleached by weather, but stained dark with dried blood and bits of flesh. He could see gouges where teeth tried to scrape every bit of tissue from the bones.
The bones were human.
He recognized, too, shreds of uniforms. They were the uniforms of the First File, his personal bodyguards. Some of them, at least, had apparently given their lives defending Richard and Kahlan.
The smaller man still had hold of Richard's ankle, apparently unwilling to let go of his prize. The other man stood to the side, looking at the thing he had pulled across the floor and out of the wagon.
Richard realized that it was his sword.
The man holding the sword pulled Kahlan partway out from under the tarp. Her lower legs bent at the knees and swung lifelessly from the end of the wagon bed.
While the man was distracted looking at her, Richard used the opportunity to sit up and lunge, trying to snatch his sword. The man yanked it back out of the way before Richard could get his fingers around the hilt. With his hands and feet tied, he hadn't been free enough to grab it in time.
Both men stepped back. They hadn't thought he was conscious. Richard had lost the advantage of surprise and gained nothing in return.
In reaction to seeing him awake, both men decided not to waste any more time. Snarling like hungry wolves, they descended on him, attacking him like animals in a feeding frenzy. The situation was so bizarre that it was difficult to believe.
The smaller of the two pulled Richard's shirt open. Richard could see a glaze of ferocious savagery in the man's eyes. The bigger one, teeth bared with a feral fury, dove straight for the side of Richard's neck. Richard reflexively drew his shoulder up, deflecting the lunge at the last instant. In protecting his exposed neck, the move instead presented his shoulder to the attack.
Richard screamed out in pain as teeth sank into his upper arm. He knew that he had to do something, and do it quick.
He could think of only one thing: his gift. He mentally reached down deep within, desperately summoning deadly forces, urgently calling on the power that was his birthright.
With his level of anger and desperation, along with his fear for Kahlan, the essentials were there for his gift to respond. In the past it had answered such critical need. The power of it should have come roaring forth.
It was as if there was no gift there to summon.
Unable to call it forth, with his wrists and ankles bound, he had no effective way to fight off the two men.
Copyright © 2013 by Terry Goodkind