Owen stood in shock. One thing after another. Marcus walked slowly to him, stepping over the bodies of horse and rider. Marcus smiled grimly.
The two hugged quickly, Owen still too shocked to think. He had never expected to see Marcus again. It had been months since the tall, lanky, archer and his father had left Kallan and Owen with the rebellion.
“Where…?” Owen looked him over. He was clad in leather and fur, his shoulders covered by a wool cloak. The thin archer looked around.
“It’s a long story.” Marcus glanced down at Ewan. Owen looked down as well, and then checked the old man’s pulse. He was jerked back to reality.
“He’s still alive!” He thought desperately for a way to save the man. He looked around for the horses. Ewan’s gelding was nowhere to be found, but Willow was making her way toward them, curious. Marcus took charge, lifting the old man onto the bay mare’s back. “We’ll have to ride fast.” He looked to be thinking for a minute, as if weighing his odds.
He looked at Owen’s bleeding arm. “You need to do something about that.” Owen nodded. He had almost forgotten. He pulled off the cloven leather bracer, tucking it in his satchel, and rolled up his sleeve. He grimaced. The wound was not deep, but it was wide and not clean. He tore a tunic from one of the dead men and wrapped it around his arm. The men began to stir, a few groaning from their injuries. Owen turned and grabbed Willow’s reins, mounting. Marcus pulled himself aboard, his strong mare holding the weight of the two men for now.
He led the way, Owen trailing behind, holding his injured arm to keep it from bleeding. He felt lethargic, and lost track of time as they rode through the foothills. They rode south west. Owen knew the sun set, and it was dark, when he fell off Willow into sagebrush. He heard Marcus voice, then knew no more.
Owen awoke to the moon shining above, his arm burning with pain. He woke, and went to Ewan. The old man’s breathing was ragged, and his face was pale, but he was still alive. He woke Marcus. “We need to ride.” They tied Ewan to Willow. Owen wondered how long he had slept. Marcus mounted his mare, and Owen climbed onto Willow behind Ewan.
He felt weak. The tunic wrapped around his arm was covered in dried blood. He knew he had lost a lot of blood, and he felt weak, but he kept going. They rode until later in the day, and then they moved Ewan to Marcus’ mare. Marcus followed trails into the mountains, until finally they turned into a valley with high cliffs on either side. They rode up a steep path, rocks falling into the canyon floor far below. The old man was still alive, barely.
Owen was surprised when they emerged into a camp, filled with wooden framed huts covered in tightly stretched hides. Men and women emerged, watching the travelers suspiciously and curiously. They seemed to recognize Marcus. Owen looked around, confused and surprised. It was undoubtedly a barbarian camp. Marcus glanced back, and seeing Owen’s stunned look, slowed to ride beside him.
“They are friends. They hid from the empire when the other tribes were forced to join.”
Owen still looked confused. Marcus shook his head. “It’s too much to explain, I will tell you later.”
Owen nodded, still perplexed. They rode to the center of the camp to a large hut with smoke coming out of a hole in the ceiling. Marcus dismounted. Owen followed his example, still not completely comfortable. He looked around at the small crowd of barbarian families that had begun to form. Just as he had been completely overwhelmed with confusion, Kaylee and the children came running from beyond the tents. Owen almost fell from shock.
The children swarmed around him and Marcus, laughing and hugging their legs. Owen was so overwhelmed with questions that he could hardly think, but he just smiled the best he could and lifted the littlest one to his side. The family… never would he have guessed that this was where they were hidden. He looked around, perplexed. Kaylee stepped to his side, embracing him in a motherly hug. She stepped back.
Owen laughed, the statement was so absurd and out of place. “Indeed I am.” She turned to Marcus. “Where is your father? And Kallan?”
“Kallan remains with the rebellion, and father and the men are following them.” Marcus put a hand on Owen’s shoulder. “Owen was travelling north, on his own quest.” He looked back at Ewan’s barely alive body. “With his grandfather.” Kaylee’s face was filled with surprise as her mouth opened in a question. Owen turned to his grandfather, looking over the old man. He was pale, and a faint groan escaped his lips. Just then there was movement in the entry of the tent.
A man emerged, grey hair with traces of black down to his shoulders. Owen looked him over. His face was bearded; his skin tanned the color of tree bark, and just about as wrinkled. He stood a head shorter than Marcus and Owen. Around his shoulders was a cloak made completely of raven feathers, jet black, glittering in the sunlight. His wizened face looked up at Marcus.
“You return, Marcus.”
To Owen’s surprise, he spoke fluently, with only a slight guttural accent. Marcus nodded.
“I have returned, Kel.” He touched his hand to his forehead, then crossed it across his chest, bowing his head. The old man turned to Owen.
“Your friend, Marcus?”
Marcus nodded. “This is Owen, of whom we spoke to you.”
Kel nodded slowly, scrutinizing Owen. Owen bowed, unsure. The old man nodded slowly. Owen turned to his grandfather, just barely alive. He untied him, and hefted him over his shoulder. Marcus turned to the elder.
“He is hurt, Kel. We need you and your healers to attend him.” The elder nodded, turning to lead the way to a tent. Owen followed, carrying Ewan carefully. Kaylee and the children followed, but waited outside as they stepped inside. They were in a dimly lit tent of taut skins, and. The elder motioned to a cot. Owen lay his grandfather down on it, and several healers stepped in to go to work.
Owen sat down, unwrapping the bloody tunic from his arm. He winced as it peeled away from the wound. The scab that had begun to form came with it, and his arm burned with pain. He flinched. Marcus said something to one of the healers and pointed to Owen’s arm. The robed barbarian came near, holding a leather bag.
Owen winced as the man cleaned the wound. His arm smarted, and the wound looked almost worse against his now clean arm. The healer began to crush some strange leaves, adding a bit of his own saliva, and then pressed it into the wound. Owen’s mouth opened in a voiceless scream, pain shooting through his body.
The herbs quickly muted the pain. After several minutes, the pain was just a dull throbbing. The healer wrapped it in large, soft, leaves. He tied it with leather binding. Owen looked up.
The barbarian looked at him blankly. Owen realized he must not be fluent as the elder. He pointed at the bandage and bowed his head in thanks. The barbarian nodded in understanding, a grin breaking out across his face. Owen smiled back, then stood and walked over to where Ewan lay.
The healers had stripped the old man of his shirt, showcasing the nasty gash across his chest. It was burtal and looked as if it had scratched a rib or two, but no organs had been harmed. The healers were placing the healing herbs into the gash and bandaging it. Owen looked at this unconscious face of his grandfather. My grandfather… all this time he had never told me… Owen stood silently watching the healers at work for several minutes, until he felt faint. Marcus led him out of the hut into the village. Owen sighed.
“Where are we staying?”
Kaylee turned from where she had been waiting. “Follow me.” She led the way through the village to a small hut which looked slightly abandoned. She motioned to a larger hut nearby. “We’ll be right next door.” Owen voiced his quiet thanks and ducked in the low door, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. It was sparsely equipped, the only furnishings being two cots and a fire pit in the center below the hole in the ceiling. Owen lay his pack down on the floor and let himself down onto the cot. It wasn’t much, but compared to sleeping on the ground it was comfortable enough.
Owen lay back, for the first time having a chance to think. He stared up, connecting scattered pieces of thoughts. Still confused, he looked at Marcus.
“What happened after you left?”
Marcus was sitting cross legged on his cot, looking up at the ceiling. “Many things.” He was silent for a moment. “We travelled west, hiding in the mountains. Lived like outlaws and… barbarians.” Owen nodded. Marcus continued. “We were not sure where to go next when the crow tribe found us. We found no other choice but to join them, but it was a blessing and we were glad we joined them. They took us in, and after some time we became members of the tribe.” He pulled back his sleeve, revealing a twisting tattoo on his forearm in the rough shape of a flying crow. Owen stared.
“And Keegan as well…?”
Marcus nodded. “After some time we took council with Kel, that we wished to search out you and Kallan. He agreed, and offered to send some of his warriors with us. So we followed the signs of war to the rebellion, and have been tracking you ever since. Father still follows Kallan. I followed you.” He leaned back. “And there is our story. What of yours, Owen?”
Owen was silent for a few moments, his thoughts beginning to come together into a single clear picture. He finally spoke.
“War, Marcus. Need I say more?” Marcus nodded. “I understand.” He was only silent for a moment. “What of this girl, then?”
Owen sighed. He had known this was coming. “It is confusing, Marcus. I would not expect you to understand.” Marcus looked affronted, but continued.
“What of Nai? Where have those feelings gone?”
“It has been some time since I had feelings for her. We were not right for one another, and I saw that. It took me too long.” He replied more brusquely than he should have.
Marcus was quiet for a moment before another question was on his lips. “Why do you work so hard for this girl when you have known her for but a short time?”
Owen turned angrily. “And how is it that you know so much of my life when you deserted Kallan and I long ago?”
Marcus was quiet. Owen calmed. “I’m sorry.” He sighed. “She is a friend, and I could not desert her to torture and imprisonment.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow skeptically, but seemed to accept this answer. Owen lay back again, his body calming except for the dull throbbing in his arm. He was beginning to doze when Marcus spoke again.
“I do not know how long we will be here, but it would do you good to learn some of the courtesy and custom of the barbarians.”
Owen felt resistance come up inside, then sighed. “I suppose.”
Marcus nodded. “First, the customary greeting is a nod of the head…” with this he launched into a short training on the customs of the barbarian tribes. Owen struggled to take it all in, wondering how Marcus managed to keep all this information in his brain. “You must remember, the tribe is the most important body, even more than the family. Of course, the family is typically part of the tribe…” Owen realized what a risk and commitment Marcus had to these people. After over a half hour of discussion, Owen interrupted him.
“What changed, Marcus?”
Marcus looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“What changed? What made you ally yourself with these… people?”
Marcus sighed. “Owen, it is hard to understand, I suppose. So give me the same credit I am giving you. I did it with the best intentions, and I do not regret the mark I bear on my arm.”
Owen nodded thoughtfully, toying with the strap of his bracer. His thoughts flashed from his family to his grandfather, to Gwen. She would be north, north of the capitol in the infamous quarries of the empire. He knew she was probably there still. I can’t wait here long… was his last thought before he drifted into a troubled sleep.