The plan slowly drew together. With the help of the girl from the market, Robyn, they prepared to break out. In fact, the girl made their escape much easier. She agreed to do whatever was needed to help the people who had saved her. Loyalty bound her to them, especially Kallan. Kallan kept up a jolly, happy mood, but when no one was watching, he dropped into a steady brooding temper. He would sit, deep in thought, until someone caught his attention again. Owen noticed this, and thought he could guess the reason.
Robyn was a shy girl, but was also very smart. She quickly caught on to the plan. Early one morning, right after the guard changed, they put their plan into action. Robyn waited outside, talking to the soldiers and offering them fresh bread to keep them distracted. They heard the sound of voices, and then after a moment she walked in, sliding a loaf of bread through the door. Then she quickly walked out.
Noren flipped over the bread, finding the narrow slit through which something had slid. He broke the loaf and the key fell to the floor with a ping on the stone floor. Noren slid the key into the lock and carefully kicked open the door. It slid open with a crash.
“Careful!” said Owen, but it was already too late. The guards had heard the crash, and they ran into the hall, weapons ready. Noren darted past them, while Owen distracted them. They ran at him, swinging their heavy wooden cudgels at his head, but he had learned his lesson last time. He dodged past, taking one blow on his chest, and the other glancing off his arm. He grimaced, but ran at them, grabbing one of the cudgels.
Noren jumped onto one guards back suddenly, knocking him down. Owen ran at the other light armored guard, slamming his head into the leather padded chest. Fortunately for Owen, the leather was softer than his head, and the man fell back with a thud to the floor. Noren knocked his guard out with his own club, and then came to Owens aid. They held him to the ground. Noren braced the club against the man’s temple.
“I’ll bash your brain out if you don’t talk.” Noren said, a pleasant smile on his face. The man frowned.
Owen grabbed the man’s jerkin in both hands and pulled him towards him.
“Where are our weapons, and supplies?” The man was silent. Noren pushed harder. He still said nothing. Owen cried out in frustration. “Tell us!” Time was running short. More guards would come any time. Owen grabbed the other club from the floor, and raised it above his head. Finally the man broke.
“Don’t kill me, please!” he cried out in fear. “I have a family!”
Owen lowered the club. “The armory is in the jail yard! And the supplies have been taken into the storehouse by the barracks.” The man quickly burst out. Owen grabbed the coil of rope, and gagged and tied the man under one of the cots in their cell.
Marcus and Kallan sat at the door of their cell.
“Impressive,” said Marcus, with a slight tone of sarcasm. “Now you have to let us out.”
Owen looked around for the other keys. They were on the belt of the unconscious guard. He pulled out the guard’s short dirk and cut the string holding the keys. He quickly unlocked the door, and Marcus and Kallan slipped out. They ran down the hall, in the direction of the courtyard. Owen slipped the sheath of the guard’s knife into his boot, and then ran after them, Noren right behind him. As he ran past the cells, he glanced in. In one of the cells lay a figure. He was battered and bruised, covered in scars, but it was not hard to tell who it was.
Owen unlocked the door and slipped into the cell. Keegan lay, battered, on a pile of straw in the corner. His beard was caked with dried blood, and he was sleeping. Owen shook him awake with joy at finding him alive.
“Leave me alone you foul…..” Keegan started, and then saw who it was. He grabbed Owens hand. “Owen, is that you? Where are the others? What has happened?”
Owen looked him over. He did not seem in very good condition. “Questions after. We have to get you out of here.” He helped Keegan up, and supported him. Noren slipped in to help, not asking any questions.
Owen followed Kallan and Marcus through the prison, and it was not long before they burst out into the courtyard. The surprised guard lay fallen to Marcus’ kick. They dashed across to the weapons storage. There were no guards, but the door was locked. Noren bashed off the lock with a guards club, and they slipped inside.
Kallan had grabbed his sword from a rack with several, slipping the sheath onto his belt. Marcus refilled their quivers with several bundles of arrows fletched with grey feathers. They turned when Owen and Noren entered the room. Kallan cried out in surprise and joy.
“Father!” He ran to Keegan and embraced him. Marcus walked quickly over and hugged him quickly. Noren picked up a fine thin dagger, the hilt carved with a flowing pattern of leaves and flowers, and slipped it into his sheath.
“There will be time for reintroductions later, my fine fellows. Now, let us gather our weapons, and leave as fast as we can.” Noren said, looking at them with an amused expression on his face. They let go and quickly began to gather weapons again. Owen selected their bows from where they were leaning on the wall, and passed them out to Marcus, Kallan, Keegan, and himself. Then he belted on his long hunting knives, and they were ready.
Owen slipped quietly to the door and looked out. The courtyard that had been empty now held a squad of ten soldiers and a man in armor and helm on a horse. He spoke angrily to one of the soldiers, who rushed into the prison. He came out with the guard that Owen had tied. The man spoke frantically, desperately trying to explain himself. The tall horseman slid off his horse, and pulled off his helm.
Before he could stop himself, Owen had an arrow on the string, ready to slay the man with a single shot to the throat. The greasy black hair and short, pointed beard left no doubt. This was the man who had taken Nai. Noren let out a harsh breath of air.
“Cardowac. I should have known!” He said quietly, but there was no mistaking the venom in his voice. In his surprise, Owen lowered his bow.
Cardowac, for it was him, dropped his helm on the ground, and then drew his sword. The guard stepped back in fear, but the soldiers held him tight. With a sudden thrust and swing, the guards head rolled on the floor. Owen looked away as blood spurted from the decapitated body, and it fell to the ground. Noren swore.
Cardowac coolly cleaned the blade of his sword, and then yelled to the soldiers.
“They can’t have gone far! Find them!”
The soldiers jumped and began to search the courtyard. At that moment a scream was heard. The soldiers rushed off in the direction it had come, the opposite door from the gate. Kallan smiled.
“Wonderful timing, Robyn.” Owen slipped out the door and ran for the open gate. Cardowac turned just as they reached it.
“Get them!” He yelled. The soldiers ran back into the courtyard, disorganized. Marcus turned and coolly shot an arrow toward Cardowac. It sped toward his throat, but he saw it just in time, and dodged to the side. It stuck in his armor-clad shoulder. He pulled it out, tipped with blood, and broke it over his knee.
The five turned again and ran out the gate. They dodged into the street, then into a back alley. They kept running, soldiers right behind them, when suddenly a slight figure stopped them and directed them into a door. They slipped inside. Robyn pulled off her hood.
“Are you all alright?”
They nodded, shaken and out of breath. They sat still for several minutes, not saying anything, trying to catch their breath. After a time, Owen spoke to Noren.
“You know that man?”
“Yes, unfortunately. He is Lord Cardowac, an evil, foul, greasy villain with no heart. He governs this province, including this town, and all the others in the surrounding plains.”
“Where does he live?” Owen asked quickly.
“Why this sudden interest?” Noren looked surprised.
Owen frowned. “He has something that is dear to me.”
“Well, you had better give up on getting it back then. Cardowac does not give up his possessions.” It was not Noren who had spoken, but Keegan. Everyone sat silent, surprised.
“I will not give up my search.” Owen said, quietly.
Marcus looked at Noren and Keegan. “Cardowac took the girl that Owen fancies.”
Keegan raised his eyebrows. “Who?”
Owen sat quietly. Then Marcus spoke.
“Nai, father. She was taken.” Then he turned to Owen. “There are some things we need to explain to father.”
Owen looked at Marcus, then at Noren, questioning speaking in front of the odd man. Marcus nodded. Owen looked at Noren.
“There are some things you need to know. We are outlaws. We are of a group that fled to the mountains when the empire was founded.” He looked at Keegan. “This next part is what you don’t know. A day after you left, barbarians attacked the village. We fought, but it was burned to the ground, and everyone but a few were killed.” An expression of fear and pain came across Keegan’s face. Owen continued, his voice pained. “We escaped, gathered our strength, but when we came back, Cardowac came, and took Nai. He said to bring the others to him at his castle. Mother, Angela, the little boys, and Nai were the only other survivors.” Keegan leveled his eyebrows.
“We must do something. Rushing after them would not be wise, but we cannot stay here while our loved ones suffer at the enemy’s hands.” Keegan said.
Noren cleared his throat. “I think I have a solution to both problems. I know where to find Cardowac, as well as were to find a group of people who would be happy to, *ahem*, dispose of him.” They all turned to Noren.
“I think you had better explain better, Noren.” Warned Marcus.
“You trusted me, so I will trust you. But, no matter what, this information must not leave this room, except to certain people I will explain you. If it does, then, well.” He patted the dagger at his side. Kallan scoffed. Noren, undaunted, continued.
“I am not as I appear. I am actually part of a secret organization, a rebellion, led by a certain General Corwin. We study the art of unseating and ousting the hierarchy of the supreme and vacillating sovereign.”
Kallan looked confused. “Eh?”
“We plan to throw out the emperor.”
Kallan nodded. “Oh.”
“Unfortunately, it has taken a different turn. Cardowac is also trying to depose of the emperor. His actions are explainable in no other way. But unlike us, who work for the good of the people, Cardowac wishes for the throne for himself. We oppose both groups, and they oppose each other.” He lowered his voice. “Cardowac’s castle in the red rock is nigh impenetrable. His men are the best in the empire, his weapons the most advanced. If there is a war, he will win. The emperor may be harsh, cruel, and evil, but he is growing old and senile. He is no ancient sorcerer with never ending life. Now the empire is disorganized, harsh, dirty, and the people are miserable.” He cleared his throat again.
“If Cardowac takes over, it will be different. It will be organized, deadly, and unstoppable. The people will have no freedom; he will control every aspect of their lives, from birth, to marriage, to childbirth, to death. We want neither option. Freedom is our battle cry. Soon we will come out of hiding, and Cardowac and the emperor both will wish they had never heard the word. Freedom!” Noren stood, a strange light in his eyes, his bearing regal and demanding. Then, as quickly as it had come, it past, and he turned back into himself, the odd, endearing, young man.
“Of course, there is always a possibility we could kill him before he gets the chance to take the throne and cause us trouble.”
They all looked at Noren for a few moments, slightly puzzled at the new turn that the journey had taken. Owen thought about it. He could help these people, and rescue Nai. But, if he followed Noren, he might not be able to help the rest of the captured villagers. The dilemma rocked back and forth in his head.
Suddenly, there was a thud on the door.
“Open in the name of the empire!” a harsh voice cried. Robyn leapt to her feet where she had been sitting by the door.
“Go!” She said, quietly but urgently. “Out the other door. The gate is not far. You may have to fight. Hurry!” They all grabbed their things and prepared to run. Another heavy thud sounded on the door. “Open up or we’ll bash it in!”
Kallan turned to Robyn. “What will happen to you?”
She smiled. “I will be fine. Just go!” She planted a light kiss on his cheek. His face lit up red. Owen grabbed his arm.
“Let’s go!” They ran out of the door, and heard the other door crash open behind them. Kallan looked back, but Owen pulled him along. They ran down several side streets, until they reached the gates. Noren stopped them as they looked across the stretch of open road. Several horses stood in front of them, saddled and loaded with provisions. Noren pointed at them.
Kallan protested. “But I don’t know how to ride!”
Kallan protested. “But I don’t know how to ride!”
Keegan grabbed his arm. “You’ll learn.”
Owen was in pain. Although he had adjusted to the horse more easily than Kallan, he was still sore all over when they reached a place to hide in the foothills of the mountains. Kallan got along pretty well with his horse, but the long lope and trot had done him in. He groaned as he slipped off his horse onto the hard stony ground. Owens legs and rear end were sore, but he could still walk to tie his horse and get out provisions for dinner. There was not much in the saddle bags, but they did hold full water skins, and some dried food.
They lay down, wrapped in their cloaks, to try to catch some sleep, but although all of them were tired, none of them could sleep. Owen sat up.
“We need to make a decision.”
Noren rolled over.
“The decision is not mine. You,” He looked around at the others. “Need to make a decision on what’s going to happen. You can follow me, back to our hideout, or you can go on alone. I am going back whatever happens. Of course, if you came you could get a good dinner and a soft bed.” He winked.
Owen looked around. Marcus and Kallan were both looking at him, waiting for his word. Keegan sat, thoughtful, pipe in hand. He could see that Marcus and Kallan expected him, who had led them so far, to make the decision.
The decision was not as hard now. Before Keegan had come, he hadn’t known what to do. But since Keegan was here now, he knew that Marcus and Kallan would have a chance against the barbarians. Now, he had to think about Noren’s offer. He knew he would have a better chance at rescuing Nai with Noren’s help, but it pained him to think of Nai as a slave under Cardowac, suffering in any way possible. He steeled himself.
“Noren, I am sorry. I cannot take your help. I cannot wait any longer.” Noren nodded.
“I understand. I will attempt to help you in what way I can.”
Owen turned to Marcus and Kallan.
“Go with father. Follow him. You do not have to come with me.” He stood up, and a tear came into his eye. Keegan looked at him.
“This is not wise, son.”
Owen turned to him.
“It may not be. But I must do something, and it must be now.” He picked up his saddlebag and tied it to the saddle of his horse. Marcus and Kallan stood up. Marcus walked forward, and bowed low.
“Goodbye, my friend.” Owen reached out, and shook his hand. Keegan stood up, and placed his leathered, strong hand on Owens shoulder.
“If you must go, know you go with my blessing.” Owen bowed his head. “Goodbye, father.”
Finally, Kallan came. Owen spoke first.
“Goodbye, Kallan.” They embraced. Kallan drew away.
“Goodbye, Owen.” No more words were necessary.
Owen grabbed his horse’s reins, grabbed his weapons, and turned to Noren.
“Show me the way to Cardowac’s castle.”