Fools never learned. Harlan Westminster lowered his binoculars and rolled onto his back. He squeezed his eyes closed until white danced in his vision. But it didn’t help. He still saw the image of the valley below. For a moment, the persistent humming in the air echoed the frustration roiling through him.
“How many did ya count?” Crouched under a low pine branch, Dennis Kramer broke the limb into bits. A tidy pyramid formed at his feet.
“Thirty-two tributes.” Harlan opened his eyes. In the dark skies of the eastern horizon, red and green stars flickered in the twilight. Thirty-two men, women and girls sacrificed and for what?
Dennis whistled low. “Wow. That must be a prosperous town to offer so much.”
“It won’t be enough.” The Providers never got enough. Harlan tucked the binoculars into his breast pocket. And it would be his pleasure to deprive them of this lot. “Let’s get the men.”
His band of six should be enough to liberate the offerings. Not that they’d thank him for it. Some of those idiots probably still believed they were going someplace nice–a city stocked with clean water, abundant food and cancer cures on every corner.
They didn’t get that life sucked and then you died–usually horribly.
Dennis dropped the rest of the branch onto his pile of tinder and dusted his hands. “Anyone we recognize in the bunch?”
Harlan scooted down the outcropping. “No.”
He’d learned early on not to return the tributes to their homes. They’d just be offered again. And again. Thankfully, he’d found some folks willing to send the tributes up North, far from the Providers’ reach, for a price.
He hoped the fools stayed there and spread the message.
Unfortunately, people down here didn’t seem to get the news. And the Providers kept coming, kept demanding more tribute.
“Any lookers among the women?”
Harlan lowered his head. Dennis was a good man. A little too preoccupied with females, but then he’d heard his wife wanted a baby and was willing to look the other way to get one. The birthing cancers affected some folks that way. “Why don’t you take some of that gold you acquire and buy a breeder’s services?”
Dennis’s cheeks flushed and his hands curled into fists. “I’m healthy enough not to pay for it.”
Harlan fingered the web of scars on his neck, jaw and cheek. With each passing year, the whites lines shown a little more through the black tattoo. Hell, he didn’t have a problem paying for it. It was a fair trade as far as he was concerned. Life was hard and he could make a few women’s lives easier in exchange for a half hour or so.
It was those poor folks without females that deserved his pity. Especially when the land soured. Not everyone would settle for a boy.
Harlan lifted his crossbow from the dirt. Counting the arrows in the quiver, he headed into the valley. Shrubs raked his sleeves as he passed.
Dennis stayed put. “I want to see them first.”
Harlan paused. The other man had never asked that before. Damn. Dennis must be getting desperate. Not good for a mission where they were outnumbered two to one. Maybe the other man should guard their flank instead of attacking the Providers with Harlan’s crew.
“Come on.” Dennis shifted his weight from foot to foot. The sun’s glow faded on the Western horizon. “It’ll only take a minute.”
If the man hadn’t accompanied him on twenty-two successful raids, Harlan wouldn’t even consider the request. Instead, he reached for the binoculars. “Get a bre–”
A twig snapped.
Harlan spun around.
Starlight twinkled off the blade shoved under his nose. Branches rustled as a man’s face appeared.
Harlan’s fingers twitched. The crossbow was already loaded. More arrows were within reach.
The tip shifted and a cut burned across his chin.
Fuck. Harlan shrugged and the strap rolled down his arm. The crossbow hit with a soft thud. Footsteps pounded behind him.
“Arms up.” The knife gestured, skimming Harlan’s nose on the way.
Warm liquid trickled over his lips, flooded his mouth with a metallic taste. Harlan complied. For now. Just until he knew how many enemy surrounded him and where Dennis stood.
“Good boy. Now back up.”
Clenching his teeth, Harlan took a step backward then another. He hoped the man enjoyed his short stint of giving orders.
“Stop.” Branches snapped when the man stepped through the shrub.
Well fuck me. Harlan turned his head slightly, catching another stranger in his peripheral vision. These assholes weren’t Providers. They wore suits. Dusty dark one-piece suits stitched from finely woven cloth. Had the Dark Hope pricks finally come down from the mountain?
He knew the bastards had to be related to the Providers. Rumors of both had appeared in his village at the same time.
Then the tributes had been demanded.
His sister had been the first to be offered.
Two months later, the town and all its occupants had disappeared.
“Now turn around.”
Harlan kept the smile from his face. How nice of the idiot to order him to survey the scene. One soon-to-be dead man stood in the nine o’clock position, two burly thugs bracketed Dennis straight up at twelve, and another at four. Easy pickings if Dennis could take out the noontime buddies. He glanced at his compatriot.
Dennis stared beyond Harlan’s shoulder.
Something hit the back of Harlan’s legs. They buckled. His teeth rattled when his knees hit the dirt. A rock dug through his pants and into his flesh. Okay, the bastard behind him needed to die first. Then the one at four o’clock. He just needed to get Dennis’s attention.
Dennis pointed at Harlan. “That’s him. Just like I promised. Now, where is my wife?”
Harlan’s shoulders drooped. Well hell, that was a pisser. Guess it was time for Plan B. He had a feeling there was a cartload of pain waiting in Plan B. Fingers curled in his hair and jerked his head back.
Spittle foamed at the corner’s of the bastard’s mouth. “This is the puke stealing our tribute?”
Harlan grinned. Warm blood filtered between his teeth. “At your service.”
“Now, I want my wife. You promised to release her if I turned him over to you.”
At Dennis’s whine, a muscle twitched in Bastard’s face before his lips twisted into a sneer. “Send him to her.”
Really? It couldn’t be that easy. The grip on Harlan’s hair loosened and he lowered his head enough to see his former compatriot.
The burly thug on the left held Dennis’s arms. The one on his right grabbed his head and twisted. Bone crackled. The smell of loosened bowels permeated the air. When the thugs let go, Dennis crumpled.
Harlan grimaced. Now he wouldn’t even have Dennis as a distraction. Plan B just got a little tougher. Good thing he was used to accomplishing the impossible.
Bastard leaned down. His rancid breath washed over Harlan. “We’re supposed to turn you over to the ‘Viders, but your stealing has cost us too much.”
“Happy to oblige.” Harlan spat into Bastard’s face.
The bloody loogie oozed down his cheek while red stormed his features.
The thug buddies near Dennis’s corpse cracked their knuckles.
Bastard swiped at the moisture with his sleeve. “You’re going to die, boy. You’re going to die real slow.”