The bounty hunter crouched on a sandstone slab, detritus from the tumbled canyon walls. His long ears twitched. Wind whipped sand along the narrow slit of earth. Leather cap and vest did little to protect his skin from the shards of pain.
Sharp eyes peered through the sand clouds, searching the vertical village for signs of life. His quarry had slipped into the abandoned area just hours before. But the bounty hunter had lost the trail in the sandstorm.
Crackling static poured from the black box on his hip. He laid his cased rifle on the slab in front of him and reached for the com-unit.
“What,” he croaked into it. “I’m busy.”
His voice was deep but cracked, much like the canyon he found himself in. The voice on the other end was metallic, harsh and screeching.
It said, “Didja find ‘er, yet?”
The bounty hunter grunted, “Nah, she vanished into Arborga. Sandstorm’s kicking up, though. Ain’t gonna find her today.”
Above the goblin bounty hunter, a raven-haired child clung to an overhanding spar of sandstone. Her filmy, flimsy clothing provided no protection against the whipping sands. She kept herself as close to the warm rocks as possible.
When the bounty-hunter clicked off his comms, he listened for several minutes to the winds howling down the canyon. In a lull, he yelled to his quarry, oblivious to her proximity.
“You’ll not make it out here alone, girl. Nothing but bandits and criminals hiding out in the Outerlands. Best you come back with me. The Masters’ punishments’ll be nothing like what you’ll find among the outlaws.”
The girl, hovering above, shivered at the thought of the Masters. She remembered a time, long before, when she had belonged to a mother. Where she was loved and protected. But then her mother died and the Masters had come.
The wind sliced across the spar she clung to, sending dagger slices of sand across her skin. Exhaustion, thirst and hunger almost made her cry out to the bounty hunter, to ask for the mercy of death, but shrill, undulating calls from the canyon walls stopped her.
The bounty hunter, perched on his slab, snatched his gun case up and jumped from the rock. He wasted no more breath on the escaped concubine. A band of outlaws was something the goblin wasn’t prepared to take on.
The girl watched the goblin flee. She was preparing herself to die, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Her body was flung aside, across the width of the spar. She found herself looking up into the wide blue eyes of a blonde woman.
“Escaped, did you,” the woman asked, her face breaking into a smile. “And you didn’t run when you heard us coming for the man. Good.”
The girl sat up. As she looked around herself, she saw several women, all with filmy, flimsy cloth tied into their hair. Her mouth dropped open and she sputtered, trying to thank the women and trying to ask questions, but everything tangled on her tongue.
The blonde woman laughed. “Don’t worry, little one. We were all in your position, once. The Masters are terrible, terrible men.”
In a different language, one that sounded melodic to the escaped girl’s ears, the blonde woman said to her companions, “She’s healthy enough. We’ll take her to market. If the Masters want her, they’ll have to bid, same as everyone else. Bathe her, feed her, and prepare her with the euphoria oils. Then we’ll see how much this pretty fool earns us.”