Nai turned and saw Owen. For a moment her eyes filled with surprise, but her face reverted to a blank expression. Owen stuttered.
“I ahem… um….”
The other girls looked at him. Jon looked at Nai, confusedly. He walked out the door. Owen backed into the hallway. Jon shut the door. Owen looked at him.
“I don’t know…..”
Jon looked at him and shrugged.
“I don’t know what to say. If she really knows you, she’ll want to be with you, but if she doesn’t…..”
Owen looked at him coldly. “We know each other alright. I saw it in her eyes, but she just cut it off.”
Jon shrugged again, and walked down the stairs. Owen sighed, and followed him. He was confused. Did Nai not recognize him? Did she not like him? What was this? He knew that if he had been in her place, he would have been overjoyed at the sight of a familiar face. He shook his head. It just didn’t make sense. The strange power of a girl once again had him puzzled.
Owen followed Jon down the stairs, and back to the kitchen. Then he slipped out the door, and headed back across the courtyard. As he walked, he felt a sudden urge to look back. He turned his head and looked up at the tower. He thought he saw a small face in the window, but it quickly moved away. He shook his head, not knowing what exactly he had seen.
He walked into the stable, and stopped in his tracks. The groom from earlier was there, trimming some of the horses hooves. He hadn’t noticed Owen. Owen slipped to the side, and pulled his pack from under the hay. The groom heard the rustle. He looked up. Owen stopped. The groom stood up. Owen watched him carefully, his hand at his dagger.
“The names Jordl.” The boy set down the clippers, and held out his hand. Owen looked into the boys eyes. There was fear there, but also courage. Owen took his hand slowly, and shook it steadily.
“Good to meet you.” The boy released his hand, and bent over, picking up his tools. He began to clip the horse’s hooves again.
“What brings you here?” He asked casually. Owen moved out of the view of the door, and sat down.
“Death.” Owen slipped his dagger out and began to sharpen it slowly. He had intended the comment to unsettle the other boy, and it worked. Jordl looked up, looking slightly disconcerted.
“Why were you hiding?”
“The men were drunk yesterday. I didn’t think they’d appreciate me still being around.”
The groom nodded. “So….. ye are a minstrel?”
Owen smiled. “I have been for the last twenty-four hours.”
Jordl looked at him, and frowned. “What the h---- is that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s just say that my reason for being here doesn’t involve singing and dancing.” Owen said ruefully. “I have a quest.” The groom began to file the hoof he was working on. There was silence. The groom looked up.
“You pass me that hammer?” He pointed at a hammer hanging near the door. Owen grabbed it and passed it to him. The groom grinned. “Thank ye.” He began to pound a nail through a horseshoe into the hard hoof. Owen watched. He heard a bell ring. He looked questioningly at Jordl.
“Changing of the watch.” He said, looking out. “The guard will come in, and fresh soldiers will replace them. They do it every four hours or so. Looks like it’s the noon watch right now.” He continued hammering. The horse moved, and Jordl swore. Owen continued to watch. He heard the soldiers clanking down the stairs. He sat still. It was cold, so he moved into the sun coming through the window.
Jordl looked up again. “So, what was that about death?”
Owen sighed.“Exactly that. Death. Lots of it. That’s why I’m here.” The boy looked questioningly at him. “My family is dead, and my home is destroyed. I’m here to find one of the only remains of home.”
Jordl looked like he had more questions, but he didn’t say anything. He silently went back to putting in the last shoe. He steadily hammered in each one, then led the horse back to the stall.
“This is yours, I assume.” Owen looked at it. He hadn’t realized it, but it was. He nodded. Jordl patted its head. “I didn’t recognize him. He’s a good solid gelding, he is.” Owen looked the horse over. He really hadn’t paid it much attention. It was a sturdy looking horse. Owen walked over to it and patted its head.
“I thought it already had shoes.”
Jordl nodded. “It did, but it was missing one. I just fixed it up. That’s my job, you know.” He smiled a small smile. Owen nodded, and returned the smile.
“Thank you, then.”
Owen tipped the corner of his hat, and walked out the door. Owen walked around to the side of the stable. The stone was roughly cut, and had plenty of handholds. He climbed to the top, and then slipped into a small alcove in the outer wall. He sat there, watching the window in the keep. He sat there for an hour or so and soon began to drift off. He fell asleep in a few moments.
Owen awoke suddenly to another bell. He realized that it must be late by now. He saw the sun, right above the mountains. Several hours had passed. He stumbled out of his hiding place, and quickly climbed down the roof. The castle seemed silent, except for a few soldiers on the walls. Owen walked into the stable, and looked around. There was no sign of Jordl. He sat down on a bench along one side, and thought, indecision filling his mind.
He felt like he had to do something, but he had no idea what to do. So he sat, deep in thought. He sat there for a few minutes, when he heard a light step coming toward the stable. He turned to the door, as a slight figure entered. Owen jumped to his feet. Nai turned, and came.
“Owen!” He held out his arms, and they hugged. He held her there for several moments. He could feel her warm breath on his neck. She pulled away. He let go. She looked into his eyes. A tear trickled down her cheek. He couldn’t stop one from leaking out the corner of his eye. It dropped to the floor. Suddenly, they were together again, hugging, sobbing. She pulled away again, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
“You survived!” Owen nodded.
“And Kallan, Marcus and Keegan.”
She looked at him with joy and sadness in her eyes. “Father?” Owen shook his head. She began to sob again. He put his arm around her and brought her to the bench. They sat down. She pulled away a little. He let her go. She sat there, curled up in a ball, crying. Owen felt helpless. He looked at her, confused and unable to do anything. He placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Do you want escape?”
She looked up at him. “Is it possible?”
He nodded. “I think so.”
She looked at him, her eyes red, then out the door. “I don’t feel it’s fair to…. Everyone else. They’ve been here longer.”
Owen looked at the ceiling. “Jon and I…….”
He looked back at her. “Yes. Jon said he’d help. He’s willing to sacrifice. As am I. We’ll get you away from this……” He almost swore, but stopped himself. “This place.” He continued, motioning around, at the castle, and grounds.
She looked at him, and closed her eyes. “No. I won’t.” She opened her eyes again. “I won’t have my friends sacrifice for me. I can’t. I could never live with it.”
Owen put his head in his hands. Nai stood.
“I have to be back, before the others wake up.” She walked out the door. Owen watched her go. He was helpless. He swore at himself. The sun began to set.
Night began to fall. Owen watched out the window as the sun fell. Suddenly he heard a loud crack, and several yells. Owen moved to the door, and then ran silently across the outer courtyard, until he came to the inner gate. He looked in. A soldier stood there, staff in hand, whipping a man on the ground. The man was doubled over with pain, and his shirt was torn. He lifted his head, and Owen recognized the broken and bruised face of Jordl.
Slaves and a few soldiers stood around them, the soldiers yelling insults at the beaten slave, and the slaves trying to hold back their revulsion.
Owen felt torn. He watched the boy beaten. The soldier’s face was full of anger and utter hate. Owen looked at Jordl again, horrified. Jordl looked up, and their eyes met. Owen saw the begging in his eyes. He fought the battle inside, but even though he had only known the other boy for a few hours, he felt he owed him.
It only took a second. Owen was between the soldier and the slave. The staff descended, he took the blow on his side. The soldier growled, and swung at his head. Owen dodged, then kicked the man between the legs. He fell back, cursing. Owen turned to Jordl.
The boy lay, coughing up blood onto the stone. He tried to smile, but began to cough harder and harder. The blood stained Owen’s hand. He held the boys head in his hands.
“You’ll be alright, Jordl, you’ll…..” The boy coughed harder.
“Owen….” Suddenly Owen was hit from the back by a heavy force. He took the blow with a growl, then grabbed the staff, and wrenched it out of the soldiers hand. He swung his fist, and it collided with the soldiers jaw. He swung up, knocking the man’s head up, then kneed him in the stomach. The man doubled over, and Owen slammed his elbow into the back of his neck. He fell.
The crowd watched, dumbstruck. Suddenly, Owen felt a tug on his leg. He looked down. Jordl pointed behind him. Owen turned, just in time to see a sword hurtling toward his head. He dodged, but then the soldier fell to the ground. Jordl had kicked his legs out, tripping him. The slaves watched. The soldier stood up, growling. His stubble covered double chin sticking out of his helmet. He looked down. Jordl lay there, helpless. The soldier stabbed.
A cry came from the crowd, uproar. A man flew from the crowd, hitting the soldier full on. Suddenly the soldier was massed by the slaves. They took him down, and cries were heard. After a moment, there was silence, and the slaves turned to see the other two soldiers, who had drawn their weapons. A tall burly man walked out of the crowd, holding the sword of the fallen soldier. The soldiers ran.
The slaves began to cheer, and yell. Owen fell down on one knee, his back sore from the blows from the staff. He stayed there, as the slaves charged, running after the soldiers. They picked up the weapons from the two fallen soldiers, and then ran across the courtyard. Owen turned. There was tumult everywhere. A few soldiers who had come to see what the noise was about were run down, their weapons taken. A few emerged from the kitchen, and then the entire slave kitchen crew charged out with a yell, knives and cleavers in hand. Owen watched, seeing a strange haze over everything. A horn blew. Soldiers rushed down from the walls, from the barracks. They were armed, and ready, fierce, and hard. The two sides met.
The slaves outnumbered the soldiers, but the soldiers had training and weapons on their side. They rushed into the slaves, hacking and slicing. Owen saw one of the tall grooms fall, stabbed through the heart. A cooking woman, with a large butcher knife in her hand, fell to a halberd. Slaves fell, but they continued on, crushing the soldiers, jumping on them, and knocking them down.
Owen pulled himself to his feet. He looked around, dazed. He began to run toward the stable. He dashed through the battle, dodging weapons. His hat was taken off by a soldier’s sword.
An ill thrown hatchet hit the torch that hung outside the stable. It fell, lighting the pile of dry hay on fire. Owen dashed through, but the fire leapt to the roof. Owen kicked open the horse stalls, and grabbed his pack from the hay. He hefted it onto his back, and grabbed a bridle. He slipped it over the horses head, but a beam fell. The horse reared. He held the reins. The horse pulled out the door, and he fell. Sparks lit the hay on fire, and his beard of tree sap began to melt.
Owen swore, peeling of the beard with a quick swipe, he threw it to the side, burning. The last few horses dashed out the door. He held his horses reigns tight, and then ran out the door. He slipped onto its back, and made for the inner courtyard at a gallop. The stable collapsed. Owen dashed through the battle, slaves and soldiers falling everywhere. He saw Jon, hacking away with a knife. Owen continued on.
The slaves pushed the soldiers back, up to the keep. At that moment, hoofbeats were heard. Owen swung his hatchet down upon a soldier, trampled another, and then began to batter down soldiers around him. Then he looked back. Torches were visible in the dark. Cardowac had returned.