Gareth the Black looked at the map and scowled. The trap hadn't closed on him yet; he still had options. The problem was that whatever option he chose, it seemed he was likely to end up dead. He didn't like that, much.
Gareth had been leading a mixed band of goblins, gnolls, and orcs through the less occupied areas of the Kingdom for three years now, and had never managed to irritate anyone with enough power to deal with him until he had "kidnapped" the Duke of Argive's granddaughter. Of course, Cynthia of Argive had actually BEGGED to be kidnapped, and was likely to be killed along side of him, but that didn't really matter.
The thing that DID matter was that the Duke has dispatched 1500 men-- two battalions of infantry, and a squadron of cavalry-- to hunt him down. And now he had deep desert to the south, cavalry to the north, infantry to the east and the west, and perhaps a day and a half to live. He looked up at the faces of what passed for his officers. "Does anyone have any bright ideas?" he asked quietly.
The orc captain just rolled his eyes. He was an orc; orcs died in battle. He hadn't really PLANNED on dying this week, but he was ready. He was an orc.
The goblin captain shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. "I still think we would have a chance sneaking out here," he said, indicating a wooded area to the northeast.
Gareth shook his head. "Fifty goblins? Maybe. Fifty orcs? Probably not. All of us? No way in hell." He sighed. "I may give you leave to take your company and TRY, though, if I don't hear a better plan." This drew growls and worse from the gnolls and orcs, of course.
"Colonel?" the gnoll captain's second spoke up; he was a wizened and wiry old brigand who more than made up in guile what time had taken from him in martial prowess. He tapped the map with with a claw. "Redfang Oasis is right about here; we can probably make in six days. If we hit this town here for supplies tonight, we could do it."
Gareth looked at the map, then at the gnoll, then at the gnoll's captain. SHE had just a hint of a gleam in her eye, Gareth thought for a moment, then said, "You're right. I had forgotten about Redfang. I think we can probably make it in five days, though, with about four more days on the other side to get back in the green." He turned to the goblin captain. "Rolgath? If you still want to try to do this by stealth, you're on your own." He looked them over once more, then said, "Right. Let's break camp, and get moving."
The gathering broke up; Gareth caught the gnoll captain's eye, and beckoned her to him. "Snark?" he said quietly, "Have a squad of your best hang back and put some time into obscuring our track; make them think that the goblins are the track to follow." Snark nodded, and Gareth continued. "And just to be clear? I DO know Redfang Oasis, so don't get any ideas about me. Right?" Snark smiled broadly, and nodded again.
Cynthia waited until the captains were out of earshot, and asked, "What is this about an oasis? Why isn't it on the map?"
Gareth shrugged. "It moves. Trust me; it will be there." Cynthia thought about that; her training as a sorceress had given her a fine sense of when NOT to push a question, and she didn't.
They raided the town just before midnight, and headed off into the desert some two hours later. Most of the orcs had been persuaded to abandon their metal armor, and had been encouraged to favor water rather than food in packing. "There will be plenty of both at the oasis," Gareth had said, "And you will want water more than you will want food on the march; trust me."
They camped at dawn on the south side of a hill, well out of sight of the town they had pillaged. They broke camp at sunset, marched through the night, then camped again. And again, and again, and again. As they made their sixth camp, Gareth told the captains that they should be to the oasis by the following morning, but that the troops should still be careful with their water. The orcs accepted the news stoically; the gnolls were guardedly jubilant.
Gareth crawled into the tent on the edge of the camp where Cynthia was already trying to sleep, got her attention, and put a finger to his lips. "This isn't a good morning to sleep," he said quietly. "Come and watch, but whatever you do, be quiet." And then he left the tent again. Cynthia crawled to the entrance of the tent, and looked over the camp.
The orcs had made camp normally, and were apparently already asleep; the gnolls had not, and were not. Their tents were half erected, as if they had been working on them only until the orcs were safely under cover, and then they had turned to making a number of odd structures out of spears: each structure consisted of two tripods, each holding either end of a crossbar some seven feet in the air. They reminded Cynthia of roasting spits, except that they were so high. Gareth sat down next to her, and she asked him what the strange things were.
"Draining racks, I think. We'll have to see."
Snipe, the grizzled gnoll lieutenant, ambled toward them. "We're about ready to begin the party, Colonel," he said. "With your permission."
Gareth shrugged. "I think I've already given it." Snipe smiled, saluted, and went back to the other gnolls.
"Gareth..." Cynthia suddenly needed to know what was happening, but didn't know how to frame the question. Gareth looked into her eyes, and shrugged again.
"No point in secrets now, I imagine," he said quietly. "Have you ever heard of ANYONE who has crossed this desert?"
"I have. The only way to do it is pack heavy on water, light on food, and then kill and eat your pack animals as soon as you can consolidate the load away from one of them." Gareth paused, and Cynthia's eyes got wide as she realized what he was saying. "They're going to kill the orcs, steal their water, drain their blood for later, and eat their bodies. When we leave here, the gnolls will be well fed, and their packs will be full again."
Cynthia started to say something, but was silenced by the beginning of the gnoll ambush. Working in groups, the gnolls collapsed each orc tent in turn, pinning the occupants and stabbing them to death through the canvas; the slaughter was over in minutes, and the gnolls started to collect both water and empty waterskins. The dead orcs were hoisted onto the draining racks, their blood was collected, and the bodies were stacked into another pile for consumption or disposal.
Snipe ambled back to them. He was carrying a waterskin that bore stains to indicate it was full of something other than water. He offered it to Gareth. "It's bad luck to visit Redfang and not at least taste the fountain," he said with a smile. Gareth looked him in the eye, then accepted the skin and took a deep drink. "Lady Cynthia?" Snipe asked; she reacted in horror. This was NOT the life she had envisioned.
"Drink or be drunk, Cyn; it's their way," Gareth said softly. Cynthia stared at him in horror, but accepted the waterskin, and drank from it. Snipe smiled, saluted, and returned to the slaughter.
"I had no idea they were so VILE," Cynthia hissed when Snipe was out of earshot.
Gareth just shrugged. "Sure you did. And they're not really vile... they're just gnolls."