Cardowac’s horsemen had charged into the courtyard, running down the slave, and spearing them. Bodies littered the courtyard, of both soldiers and slaves. The slaves still outnumbered the soldiers five to one, and massed the horses, pulling soldiers off, and climbing on the horses themselves. The darkness made the chaos even more frightening, the torchlight reflecting off the metal of soldier’s armor and weapons.
Owen ran through the riot, smashing heads with his hatchet, and stabbing with his dagger. He just fought for life, not really having solid purpose. Nai’s image flickered in his mind in the carnage. He fought, his face in a grimace, swinging, flailing, at every bit of armor or helmet he saw. He crushed many. He looked up.
Cardowac faced him from across the mass of struggling bodies. His horse reared, but he kept the same cold angry stare directly on Owen. Owen knew that he was Cardowac’s target. Suddenly, a voice called his name.
“Owen!” He looked back. Jon was locked in combat with a soldier. He was covered in blood, and it didn’t look like being a kitchen slave had equipped him for war.
“Get Nai, and get out of here!” Owen didn’t think twice. He rushed round the keep, through the soldiers, and the mass of bodies. He came to the kitchen door. He jumped from his horse, and ran in the door. He grabbed a handful of bread as he ran by and stuffed it in his pouch. He dashed up the stairs, and up, round and round. He banged on the door of the room. It opened. Three girl’s heads stuck out. Fear was in their eyes. Owen growled.
“Come on.” Nai looked at him. “Come on!” He grabbed her hand, and pulled her out the door. The other girls followed. Owen frowned. He had forgotten about them. He swore under his breath. They ran down the stairs, out the door. Owen looked around desperately. He swore again. This was a mess.
He lifted the three girls onto the horse. At least they were all light. He grabbed the horses bridle, and started to run. He wanted to reach the gate. They ran. The battle raged. Owen saw the battle, Cardowacs horse rearing, knocking down a tall groom. He looked around, desperate, the way to the gate was blocked. A man fell to the ground. Owen’s horse reared. The girls were thrown to the ground. Owen ran to Nai. She was already on her feet, running.
Nai ran. Flame spouted. Soldiers fell. Slaves pushed back. The might of soldiers was pushed back by the strength of those they had oppressed. The persecuted destroyed the persecutors. Justice. Cardowac turned, raising a spear.
“RETREAT!” He yelled, his face in a feral snarl. The soldiers didn’t have to be asked twice. They bolted from the castle, routing out the gate, down the road. Owen watched, in unbelief. The slaves massed forward. Cardowac turned once more as he went out the gate, and launched the spear. It sped toward Nai. Time seemed to slow down. Owen ran, but knew he was too far. The spear came closer and closer. Nai stopped in surprise. A figure leapt from the darkness with a yell. The spear collided, and it collapsed on the ground. Nai fell to her knees, and a tear trickled from her eye.
Owen turned, and saw Cardowac once more as he made a retreat. Owen raised his clenched fist, in silent challenge. Cardowac snarled, and turned his horse and galloped away. Owen knew it was not the last he would see of the evil lord.
Owen turned and dashed over to where Nai sat. Jon was laid, his face white as death, on the stone, Cardowacs spear deeply embedded in his chest. He gasped for air, and was still living, but Owen could see that it was no use to get a healer. Jon’s head was in Nai’s lap. She sobbed, tears trickling down onto her cheeks.
Owen reached down, and slowly pulled out the spear. A little blood trickled out, but not much. Owen stood, and looked back across what a few moments ago had been the place of a riot. Owen looked across the courtyard. Everywhere were mourners. The battle was won, but the loss was heavy. Women who had not been part of the fight came out, mourning their fathers, sons, and brothers.
Owen looked back over his shoulder. He saw Jon’s mouth move, and saw Nai respond. She bent down, and kissed his head. Owen turned and knelt beside Jon. Blood trickled from Jon’s mouth. He reached up, and took Nai’s hand. His voice was raspy.
“Owen….. will…. take…..care…. Of…. You.” He looked into Owen’s eyes. Owen nodded slightly. Jon smiled. His hand dropped to the ground, his eyes closed. Owen placed his palm on the dead boy’s head in silent blessing, a small tear trickling down his face. Nai cried long. Owen stood, and looked down upon Nai for a moment, his eyes welling up. He wiped the tears away, and trudged off. All around, the sounds of wailing were heard. He shut his ears, the sounds maddening. He pushed open the door, and ran, crying. Death. So much. He hated it. He hated the life that led to death. He collapsed into a chair. He sat there for a while crying.
After what seemed to be hours, he stood stiffly, trudging slowly outside. He would never get used to this senseless killing. And he was the cause of it. He hung his head, and felt old. Would the madness never end?
Owen woke up on a bed in the slave quarters early the next morning. He went quietly out the door, and climbed up onto the wall, to watch the rising of the sun. It blossomed, and the red light renewed Owens spirit again. He stood there, in the cold air. The wind came up, and his hair blew.
He turned, and looked across the courtyard. He could see the remnants of the battle everywhere. The stable was burned, along with a few other wooden structures that had been close enough for the flame to spread. The soldiers bodies were still scattered, but the slaves had already taken their own dead into the mess hall. The dead were laid out on the tables inside, as were the wounded. Owen sighed. He walked down the stairs, as the slaves began to come out, and wake up.
Owen would have left as soon as he could, but he felt it was his duty to help the slaves. They had not really been prepared for being left on their own, and so would need as much help as they could get. The slaves began to bury the dead. Those who had no dead buried those who had no families.
Owen hefted Jon’s body over his shoulder, and took him out, to the area they had appointed as graveyard. Nai followed him. It was a beautiful place, with red rocks all around. Owen began to dig with a shovel he had borrowed from the garden. It was cold, but the labor made him sweat, and he stripped off his cloak and jerkin. Nai watched. He got into a fervor, angrily digging, soil flying. Soon he was deeper, and deeper. When the hole was above his waist, he took Jon’s lifeless body, and laid it into the hole.
Nai and Owen worked, side by side, filling the hole with dirt. Owen began to cover the mound in rocks, finding large ones, and throwing them onto the pile. He scowled and grimaced as he threw the heavy rocks onto the pile, but exulted in the pain. A few other slaves joined them, and the hole filled quickly.
He finally collapsed midmorning. The mound was tall and solid. He sat down, his limbs crying out in pain. He sat there, his chest heaving, his muscles straining. He leaned back against a bare limbed pine. He sat there until he regained his breath, and grabbed his things. He walked back to the castle. Nai lingered for a few moments, and then followed, leaving others still burying their loved ones behind them.
Owen reached the inner keep. Several men were solemnly gathering the bodies of the soldiers and loading them into a cart. They had caught several of the escaped horses, including Owens. The drove the cart out through the gate and piled the corpses about five hundred yards into the rocks. They lit them on fire. Owen watched the black smoke billow up in silence.
He walked to the keep, and went inside. He walked past the moaning wounded and the men and women tending them. He walked up the stairs. He climbed up them slowly, passing many doors, until he came to a large door, with a gold door handle, and a large knocker.
He slowly raised his hand and knocked. There was no answer. He turned the handle, but it was locked. He tried it again, before pulling the hammer off his belt. It was worn and broken from the battle, but it was still strong enough to knock off the door handle. He reached through the hole, and undid the latch. He pushed, and the door slid open. He walked inside, carefully.
It was a large room, with a four-poster bed on one side. On the other side there was a desk and a table. A rack on one side held a few weapons. The floor was tiled with red rock, and a large bear rug was on the floor. Several robes of fur and velvet were hanging on the wall. Owen reached out, and stroked one gently, the softness feeling abrasive against his rough hands. He pulled away, and sat down on the bed. It was unreal how soft and comfortable it was. He had never felt such comfort. It was alien to his roughened senses.
He lay back, looking out the large windows on one side. The sky was blue, and a large bird landed on the sill. Owen watched it for a moment, sleepily. Suddenly a shot of recognition came to him. He sat up, and walked to the window. The large raptor cocked its head, and looked at him with a single yellow eye. He reached down to his belt slowly, and opened the drawstring on his pouch of jerky. He held a piece out to the bird. It snapped it up with its hooked beak, and Owen jerked back in surprise. It cocked its head expectantly. Owen smiled, and fed it another piece of meat.
He remembered the bird. Marcus had trained it, feeding it meat, and eventually teaching it to hunt for him. That was the only hunting he ever did. He had let the bird roam free when the left the village, but it had returned every once in a while. Owen had forgotten about the little hawk, but now, he thought it might be able to help him. Keeping one eye on the bird, he walked to the desk. On it were some pieces of paper, and a quill pen. He was once again glad Keegan had taught him his letters.
The bird did not protest when he held out his hand and carefully tied the paper to its leg. He didn’t know if the bird would get the idea, but he lifted it out the window, and launched it lightly into the air. It leaped, glancing back at him. Owen couldn’t tell if the look in its face was of understanding or confusion. It soared away, gaining altitude, before moving south.
He sighed, and shrugged. The bird might fly back to Marcus, and bring with it the message. Hopefully it would eventually go to him, and they would know he was safe. He looked back at the room. He walked to the desk, and opened the desk drawers one after another. Two of them had only a few writing utensils, but the third was locked. Once again with his hammer, he broke the latch, and opened it. It held a small knife, a few maps, and a small book.
Owen opened it, and looked at the dusty pages. He paged through it. On each page there was a hand drawn sketch of a city, castle, or fort, and a detailed description of it. Owen looked at it, impressed. Obviously, Cardowac had taken a great deal of time in studying the geography of the country. Owen tucked the leather-bound book in his satchel, and pulled out the maps.
He had never seen a map of the land. He had never even seen a map other than the rough hand drawn ones made in the dirt by someone explaining a hunting range or a new trail. He looked at it carefully. After a minute of looking, he found a small inscription that said Eagles Glen. That gave him his bearings.
On the left side of the map, there were many mountains. To the right, there was a large blank area, with a single inscription. The Great Desert was all it said. Near the middle was a star marking. It named the capitol city, Drenna. Owen went south-west from the mark, and found Eagles Glen again, and then the small village. East of it was a city. Even further south, two more cities were marked, Merten and Ildiv. Owens eyes moved north again, above Drenna. North of and to the east of the capitol were two more cities. He followed a river south-east from Drenna. There was only one more thing marked on the map that far east. A small dot, with almost indecipherable words next to it. Ocih Basin. He took one last look over the map.
Owen picked up the map, and tucked it into his bag, and then shut the drawer again. He looked around the room. He frowned. It seemed wrong to let the man who had done them so much wrong to keep all this. He pulled the warm robes from the wall, and put them in a pile at the door, along with a sword, axe, and hunting spear that hung on the wall. Then he piled the rest on the bed. An unlit lamp was on the desk. He took it and poured the oil over the bedding and furniture. He took out his flint and steel, and began to strike. It took a moment to get a spark, but when it came, it caught the oil.
Owen turned as it began to burn, and walked out the door, picking up the robes and weapons in his arms. He carried them down the stairs, and put them in a pile on the dais in the front of the hall. He moved out of the hall, and sat down on the ground to the side of the doors. He looked up. Smoke billowed out of the upstairs window. He smiled grimly.
He sat deep in thought, for several minutes, until two men walked up to him. He stood. He recognized one of them as one of the grooms he had seen earlier, and the other he had seen shortly in the battle. Owen reached out his hand in greeting. The tall groom took his hand and shook it firmly.
“My name is Molner.” Owen returned the handshake, and then turned to the shorter man. He reached out a large hand which practically swallowed Owens. He shook it, and Owen tried not to grimace as the man’s hand crushed his. His voice was surprisingly high pitched. “Olchies the name.” Owen nodded. “The names Owen.” The groom nodded.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Owen looked slightly confused as the groom crossed his lean, muscular arms. They both looked at Owen. Owens forehead creased. “What do you mean?”
The other man spoke again.
“You got us into this.” His voice was grating in an unpleasant way. Owen looked back and forth between them slowly.
“Do you want my story?”
The men nodded. Owen began to speak. He told them most of his story, although he left out Noren, and once again he concealed his liking of Nai, more out of embarrassment than anything else. They listened, nodding. When he was finished, he sighed. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell my story.”
The short burly man spoke again. “You have to help us now. You’re the one who got us into this D--- mess.” Owen watched him carefully.
“What do you want me to do?”
The groom looked at him. “Very few of us have knowledge of the outside world. We cannot survive on our own. And, you were the one who had the strength and courage to free us, be it at a price.”
The other man growled. “And it’s by your stupidity that we’re in this mess.” Owens eyebrows narrowed, but he said nothing. Molner turned to Olchie. “Peace. This boy tried to save one of our own, at personal cost to himself. He is still young.” Olchie grumbled and turned away.
Owen looked up at the tall groom. “I will help any way that I can.”
The groom looked around at the courtyard. “We cannot stay here. We must leave before Cardowac returns with more troops. It will not be long.” He turned. “What is your advice?”
Owen looked at the slaves as they moved to and from the keep. “Have everyone collect anything they do not wish to let behind. Make sure they are warmly clad, and get all the food we have. Have all the able bodied men collect weapons, in case of attack. And then use all the animals for carrying the wounded. We will have to go into the red rocks.”
The groom stood silent, then nodded and moved off. Owen went back inside the hall, and picked up the pile of robes he had left, leaving the weapons behind him. He walked around the hall, going to those wounded who looked weaker. He wrapped a sturdy looking old man in one of Cardowac’s robes. The man was weak from loss of blood.
He found Nai tending a middle aged man who had been clubbed in the head. She was feeding him a broth. She stood when Owen came near. She set down her ladle in the pot, and walked to him.
“Is there some sort of plan?”
“Yes. We’re leaving soon.”
She nodded. “Should I get ready?”
Owen nodded. He turned, then remembered something. He reached to his throat, and unclasped the leather cord from his neck. He turned.
“I think this is yours.”
Nai looked at it, and then took it from his hand. She smiled at him. “Where did you find this?”
“In the ruins of your house.”
A few hours later, most of the slaves were ready. They had moved surprisingly quickly. Owen was still getting impatient. He looked up. The sun was high in the sky. It was getting past noon.
The slaves were in a large group outside the main gate. The men held farm utensils, kitchen knives, and a few weapons that were left in the barracks and armory. The women and children held small packs of belongings on their backs. Owen noticed that there were no elders or young children. He asked Molner about it. The older man looked grim.
“We are only useful if we are strong. Neither children nor elders are needed here. Any that grow weak are sold.”