Owen slipped out of the kitchen doorway. Jon had been busy, and could not take much time to talk, so Owen had left him, to go and get a closer look at the castle. He climbed up a narrow flight of steps to the wall. No one was there. The guards were still recovering from their binge of drinking, so Owen was alone. He paced the wall, thinking for a few moments. The night air was refreshingly cool, but all the same, he felt an unusual tenseness and uneasiness.
He walked around the wall, thinking, for a long time. He knew Nai was here, and he had possible allies among the slaves. Plans were formed and discarded in his mind. He thought carefully about it. He couldn’t wait for Noren. It could take days, even weeks, for Noren to return with his ‘army’ of rebels. Something could happen to Nai at any time. He settled down, thinking. His mind began to wander.
Out of boredom, he began to study the workmanship of the wall. It was not as badly designed as he had first though. Although the bottom wall was short, it also had spikes and ridges designed to prevent attackers from climbing over it. There was also a stout pike hung from the wall every few yards to be used to push back the ladders.
On the top wall, it was even more impressive. The arches which Owen had scoffed at earlier were actually cunningly designed. They offered defenders a way to get quickly from wall to wall, but mechanisms controlled by chains, pulleys, levers and a few other pieces allowed for the destruction of the arch in less than a moment.
“Whoah.” He muttered. “Tougher than I thought.”
“It’d be hard to breach without the right equipment.”
Owen turned. A figure stood behind him, leaning on the railing of the wall. It was Jon. He stood there, quietly.
“So, tell me why you are here, and how you came to be here.” Jon said, looking into Owens eyes.
Owen sighed, and began to tell a quick version of his story. He left out a few things, such as Noren, and his liking for Nai, but eventually made it to the end.
“So Keegan took Kallan and Marcus and began pursuing the barbarians, and I came to see if I could find Nai.” He stopped, and stood, looking off into the courtyard below. Jon looked at him, then looked back.
“I better be going. They will begin to wonder where I am.” He turned and walked quickly down the stairs, and disappeared around the corner of the keep in a few moments. Owen sat quietly, and then quietly walked down the stairs, then to the stables. He settled in the hay near his horse, his hand on one of his knives.
Owen woke early the next morning, uncomfortable, with straw stuck in his clothes. He decided that sleeping in straw wasn’t a very good idea. He stood, dusting himself off, picking the straw out of his cloak. His horse was standing quietly in the stall, nibbling on some hay. Owen slipped out of the stall, and out into the biting morning air. The sun had not yet risen. The sky was a dark grayish-blue.
He walked out, keeping in the shadows of the wall, his cloak covering his bright colored clothing. He crept along, watching carefully. Apparently, some of the soldiers had come out of their drunken stupor, and were patrolling the wall above. Owen paced quietly around the courtyard, thinking.
The sun began to rise, and a bell rang in the keep. Doors opened, and people came out everywhere. Owen quickly ran toward the stable, and slipped inside as slaves and soldiers passed by, heading to their work. Owen watched as the slave drivers, armed with cudgels and leather cords, pushed the slaves to work. Owen craned his head, looking for a glimpse of Nai, but did not see her. He slipped to another window, and watched, but still saw nothing.
He noticed several slaves, accompanied by a few soldiers, coming toward the stable. He looked around for somewhere to hide. The stable was two stories, connected by a ladder. Owen climbed the ladder quickly, into the hay loft. He heard the men enter below him.
“You, groom, get horses ready.” A soldier’s voice echoed in the stone building. “Fifteen of them, with light gear and bags. Lord Cardowac wants a search party.”
He heard the heavy footsteps as the soldiers walked out. The grooms began to ready the horses. Owen knelt, and looked through a crack in the floorboards. There were four of them, and they were all fairly tall men, with thin wiry frames. They were dress in worn clothes with leather aprons, a variety of horseshoeing tools sticking out of the pockets. They began to saddle horses, and one checked the hooves of each one, pounding in a nail with a small hammer here and there, or trimming a slight bit of hoof off.
Owen watched, interested, until he saw one coming toward the ladder. He stood, and looked around. He saw a low beam on the ceiling, and he jumped and grabbed it. He held on tight, and climbed the wall, then pulled himself onto the beam. He climbed up it further, and then moved to a higher beam, without any light falling on it. He was hidden in the shadow. The grooms head poked up through the hole, and then he moved to a pile of hay in the corner. Grabbing a hayfork, he began to push it into a gap between the wall and the floor. It fell down to the bottom story. He looked around, then began to sweep up the hay.
Owen moved his hand to get a better grip, but his foot slipped, and he tumbled to the floor. He landed in a heap with a mighty thud. The groom turned, hayfork in hand, toward the noise. Owen winced and then rolled to the side, standing and getting out his hatchet as he rose. They both stood there, watching each other carefully.
The groom was in his early twenties, with a head of closely shaven black hair. His face was angular, but his nose was rounded, as if to make up for the lack of roundedness in his face. His eyes glittered with some feeling, but his mouth was wide with surprise. A voice came from below.
“You alright Jordl?” It was the voice of one of the grooms.
Jordl looked down, and then back at Owen. “Yes, I’m fine. Just dropped a bale.” He backed up, then looked at Owen more closely, before turning and bolting down the ladder. Owen stood, breathing carefully, watching the ladder, hatchet in hand. He quietly slipped it back into its sheath, and then tiptoed to the crack. He looked down.
“Almost ready, scum?” A soldiers voice loudly asked. Owen put his head carefully through the hay gap, and looked at the door.
“Almost ready.” One of the grooms led another horse out the door, and tied it to a long rail on the front of the building. Owen stood quietly, and walked to the window. He looked out. The sun had risen now, but there was still only a light red glow over the castle. Rocks surrounded it, so the sun took longer to fully rise. Owen watched as slaves bustled around the castle, working hard, their slave-masters watching closely for any sign of misconduct.
Owen looked down. Several horses were already outside, and a groom came out leading two more. Now there were only a few more horses to bring. Owen sat quietly, waiting. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the last horse was brought out, and the grooms went to different work. Owen stayed quietly watching the courtyard from the loft window.
Cardowac came pacing out of the inner wall, clad in a burgundy robe over his usual chainmail. His sword was at his side. He mounted on a large chestnut gelding, and 15 sturdy soldiers followed him. They mounted, and he turned and looked at them. His voice echoed over the stone.
“We search the red rocks, and the foothills. Reward to the finders!” With a cheer, they trotted out of the castle, the gate clanking closed behind them. Owen watched until they were gone, then climbed down the ladder and stepped quietly through the stable, and out the door. He stayed in the shadow of the wall, and then dashed across the courtyard, into the inner court. He watched carefully, and making sure no one was watching, he walked to the keep, and pulled the door slowly open. It was heavy, and creaked as he pulled it. He slipped inside, and looked around.
He was inside a great hall, with two long tables running lengthwise along it. There was a raised dais on the far end, with another table upon it. The whole room was musty and dirty, but he could tell it was used often. It was empty except for a few rats picking at crumbs on the floor.
Owens stomach grumbled. He hadn’t eaten for almost a day, and even then only a bit of meat. He looked in his satchel, but there was only a little left of his dried food. He decided to save it. He looked around, but there was no food on the tables. He sniffed. Something smelled good. He followed the smell, and came to a door to the right of the dais.
He opened it slowly, and then walked down a set of stairs. He paused at the bottom, and realized he was in the kitchen again, except this time from a different direction. It looked as if the cooks were cleaning up. A large pile of leftover bread and meat was on a tray just out of the stairway. Owen stepped out carefully. A large woman walked up to him.
“What are you doin’ in here young man?” She asked, putting her hands on her hips. Owen looked around, cornered.
“I, umm, I’m looking for Jon.” The woman looked at him carefully, and then turned. “Jon, come over here.” Jon turned from where he had been standing on the far end of the room.
“What?” He saw Owen. “Oh.” He walked over to Owen. The woman stood back, watching. Jon looked at her with a pained expression on his face, and then turned to Owen. Owen backed into the stairway. Jon followed him, and then quietly spoke.
“What do you need?”
Owen looked over his shoulder at the woman. “I need two things. One, I haven’t eaten a good meal in days. Can you spare a little something.”
Jon looked back at the tray of food. “Yes, no problem.”
“And secondly, I’m looking for Nai. Where is she?”
Jon had an unreadable expression on his face. “Just wait. I’ll take you to her.” He turned and went back into the kitchen. He quickly heaped some meat and a slightly burnt roll onto a wooden trencher and brought it to him.
“Here, take this. We have a lot of leftovers; it all goes to feed us, usually, unless we’re caught. Then it goes to the pigs.” Owen nodded, and then dug in. The roll was just slightly burnt, and still tasted very good. The grains crunched as he bit in. The meat was dark brown, and juicy, of a type that Owen had never seen.
He quickly ate on the steps, and then walked back into the kitchen, placing the trencher on a pile of dirty dishes. Most of the slaves were gone, but Jon and a few others prepared some small trenchers of food. Owen stood patiently to the side, waiting. Finally, Jon came, holding a tray with several pieces of food.
He walked up the stairs, and then turned into the hall. He walked along the edge, until he came to another doorway. He turned into it. Owen followed. They walked up another staircase, which went around the edges of the tower. Several doorways branched off, but Jon continued going past several of them. Finally, on the third story, Jon stopped, and knocked on a small door leading out of the hallway. It opened. Jon walked in. Owen stayed in the hall, but looked in the door.
He looked into a small room, where 3 young women stood. They were all dressed nicely, in flowing dresses and robes, but their faces bore testimony of the abuse they had suffered. Owen looked at each one in turn, until he came to the last. It was Nai. He breathed a sigh of dismay. Her face was bruised, and he could see the edge of a peeling bandage hanging from her arm under her sleeve.
She smiled at Jon, and he smiled back, then he passed her the food. Owen had a pang of jealousy, but he did not know quite why. He stood, feeling shy, in the doorway. One of the girls turned, and raised her eyebrows.
“Who are you?”