Owen rode quickly ahead of the mass of slaves as they moved through a valley in the red rocks. He rode up a hill, and then dismounted. He climbed quickly up one of the large rocks. He reached the top, and took a look at the surroundings. They were at the edge of the red rocks, against the mountains. He looked back toward Eagles Glen. He scanned to the east. Then he choked in fear. A cloud of dust rose out on the plains. It moved toward Eagles Glen. He couldn’t see the castle, but he knew they would reach it within the hour.
He slid down the rock, scraping up his jerkin, and ripping his cloak, and landed heavily on his knees. He sprung to his feet, and mounted his horse quickly. He rode down toward the slaves at a lope. He reached Molner, riding at the head of the mass of slaves.
“They are coming.” He said, out of breath. Molner tightened his grip on the pitchfork he held in one hand.
“An hour till they reach Eagles Glen, at the most. We don’t have much time.” Owen looked up at the sun. “We are almost out of the red rocks.” He looked up ahead. “If we move quickly into the mountains, they may not be able to catch us.” He glanced back at the haggard faces of the slaves.
He rode quickly from man to man, telling them to ready themselves. The women and children quickened their pace. The men dropped to the back, glancing back every few minutes, fear in their eyes. Owen rode back every few minutes, making sure that no one was coming. An hour passed. They reached the high pass, into the mountains. A moment of indecision was then. Owen said they should go into the mountains, but the slaves refused. They had heard terrible tales of the mountains, and their superstition was too great.
They moved south, along the foothills. They stayed in the trees, out of sight. The thick pines obscured their sight. They skirted the bottom of the hill that Owen had first climbed when he had come out of the mountains, and began to grow nearer to Moransford. The sun was setting. They could see the the town below them. They climbed up, into the edge of the mountains. Owen glanced back. He could see the glimmer of the last sunlight off the armor of the enemy.
They were moving slowly, following the trail. Owen trotted along the rough terrain, up to the front.
“They’re tracking us.” He said to Molner. Molner looked back, and saw them approaching. ` “When will they catch us?”
Owen sighed. “Within the hour.”
Molner looked back. “Ready your weapons.” The men looked back. A quiet murmur of fear settled across the people. Owen felt for his hammer, and he strung his bow. His weapons sat where they were supposed to, along with the daggers on his belt. The slaves moved faster. The altitude began to drop. They were headed down hill. The people began to run. The peak of the hill obscured the soldiers. The slaves broke out into the open. They ran across the wide open space. Owen looked back. He saw Cardowac, an expression of extreme anger on his face. He charged. His group of horsemen followed.
The slaves ran. The horses came down behind. Owen turned and stopped, and pulled out an arrow. He fired at Cardowac. He missed. The arrow collided with a horse. It fell, rolling on the ground. Another horse tripped on it, falling to the ground, throwing its rider. Owen only had time to bring out one more arrow before the soldiers were upon them. The men turned at the last minute, and faced the soldiers. They collided.
The soldiers cut down the unarmored slaves, but as Owen swung wildly at the soldiers, he noticed that they were killing as few as possible. They were knocking down most of the men, immobilizing them. Owen realized they were trying to take them alive. He struck out, smashing through a helmet. He swung again, as the light faded. The soldiers knocked down slaves. He watched a spear pierce a young boy. An injured man mounted on a mule was knocked to the ground with the backside of an axe.
Owen awoke with a throbbing pain in his head. He was in a small cell, on the floor. He could see other crumpled bodies around him in the low light. One window lit the cell. It was strangely familiar. He realized where he was. He was in the Moransford prison. He sat up, and leaned on the wall. His head throbbed.
He stumbled to his feet, and walked to the barred door. He looked out. Five soldiers stood in the hallway. One of them walked to the doorway. He smiled.
“Awake, scum?” He put his hand through the bars, and shoved Owen back. He fell back, tripping over a body, and landing on someone else. He lay there for a moment. The soldier walked off, laughing. Owen grimaced. The body he was laying on stirred, and groaned. Owen rolled off it, and lay on the stone floor for a moment. Then he sat up, and leaned on the wall again. He felt for his belt. It was gone, along with his satchel, and all of his weapons, and supplies. He sighed. Of course they were gone. The soldiers would have left nothing.
His boots, jerkin, and cloak had been stripped from him, leaving him in only his shirt and leggings. He shivered.
The cell grew lighter, as the sun rose fully. A few more men stirred. Finally one rolled over. It was Molner, although he was barely recognizable. His nose was bleeding, and a large gash on his brow left blood streaming down. He groaned, and then pulled himself to a sitting position. Owen raised his hand in greeting.
“I’m bloody sorry.”
“You should be.” Molner sighed. “We aren’t any better off, are we now. And Cardowac will certainly crack down on us.” He sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t bemoan my own fate. You’re the one he will kill.” Owen knew he was right. Cardowac would not let him live long.
They sat in the cell for hours. Owen grew restless. Some of the men woke up. Some of them didn’t. By noon, Owen knew that they weren’t ever going to. The soldiers patrolled the hallway. No one was going to escape alive. Owen began to feel hopeless again. He wished he could see Kallan and Marcus again. He wondered if Nai was alive, somewhere in this jail.
Sometime in the afternoon, the soldiers came. The clapped chains on the feet of all the men crammed into the cell, except Owen. They were led out the door. Molner nodded a grim farewell, as the door slammed shut. Owen could hear the other slaves being led out. He watched them pass. He didn’t see Nai. He waited, with a feeling of foreboding.
There was silence. He could hear his heart thumping. He clenched and unclenched his hands. A sound broke the silence. The slap of leather boots on stone floor. Owen stood, and waited. Cardowac came to the door. He unlocked the door, and came in, closing it behind him. He sat down on the stone bed, leaving Owen to stand. He cleared his throat, then spoke, his voice as smooth as honey. His face was calm, his face victorious.
“Who are you?” He said. Owen stood, silent. Then he replied haltingly.
“My name is Owen.”
“And, Owen, why do you seek to be so rebellious?”
“You killed my family.”
Cardowac looked into his face. “Come now, how is that so.”
Owen suddenly grew angry.
“You brought the barbarians, you took Nai, you killed my friends, you took my family. You are evil!” He screamed, moving toward Cardowac. The evil lord stood.
“You, are scum.” He grabbed Owen by the throat, and pushed him against the wall. Owen struggled. “Tommorow, you will be killed in front of everyone. And all will know what the punishment is for treason.” He dropped Owen, and shoved out the door, locking it behind him. He walked quickly down the hallway.
Owen fell to the ground, his spirit broken. He sat there, just trying to regulate his breathing. It slowed. He leaned back, closing his eyes, calming himself. He sat there, for a long time, while the sun moved across the sky. He sat there all day, until he finally fell into a deep sleep, still lying on the stone floor.
He awoke early. The sky out his window was a deep blue, and the last few stars were still showing. He stood stiffly, and stretched. Today was the day. He sat down on the wooden bench, running his hands through his hair. His hair was coarse and short, roughly cut. His calloused hands caught on it, and felt odd. He stopped. His mouth felt dry. He cleared his throat, and swallowed. He bowed his head and muttered a silent prayer.
He leaned his head back against the wall, while tapping on the bench absentmindedly with his fingers. It was cold, and he shivered in his single layer of red cloth. A breeze blew through the high barred window. He hugged himself, trying to stay warm. He stood, and began pacing. His legs were sore, but it was the only way to get the blood moving through his body. His feet were freezing.
The sun was rising. He could see the light fall on the ceiling of his room through his east facing window. He pulled the bench to the window, and stood on it. He stood on tiptoe, and looked out. The horizon was free, but the sky was full of clouds. The wind was blowing. The village was still fairly silent. A few stray dogs fought over a bone in the frozen mud, while a single old beggar sat in an alley. Owen watched as a farmers cart clattered down the street.
He stood there, watching, as the streets came to life. People came out, and began to go about their daily work. They seemed content at first, but Owen did not miss the look of fear and hopelessness in their faces.
Soon, his neck grew stiff from craning over the windowsill, and he sat back down. He leaned back, watching the door. The sun began to grow higher, and the golden rays fell on the top of the barred door, casting a shadow in the hall. For some reason, hope seemed to well up in him. He smiled, good memories flowing over him.
He thought back over his life. All the wrongs and misunderstandings didn’t seem so important now. He remembered his friends. Kallan, Marcus. His family. He thought of Nai, and Rory. He thought of everyone from the village and all the good memories they had shared. Then a cloud covered the sun. The hope faded. Light was gone. Owen heard heavy footsteps in the hall.
He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. A key clicked in the lock. He heard the door creak open. He opened his eyes, and stood, as the heavyset soldier placed the heavy irons on his wrists behind his back. He shoved him out the door, and down the hall. Owen fixed his eyes ahead, and walked forward, head high.
They broke out into the courtyard, which was bustling with soldiers. Owen noticed all the slaves were being marched out the gate, in shackles. The soldier roughly pushed him out the gate, along the lines of slaves. He marched him through the streets. People turned, and watched him pass. His bare feet were rubbed raw by the frozen mud. He grimaced a bit, and stumbled. The soldier caught him, and picked him up by the scruff of his neck.
He was pushed ahead. His feet began to bleed, scraping on the edges of frozen mud. He was pushed to the central square. The soldier pushed him up a stairway, to the scaffold. He stood on the wooden platform, barefoot, cold. He looked out, across the people. Peasants, farmers… they all went about their daily life, but they watched the large number of soldiers entering the courtyard warily. Owen looked toward them.
The soldiers marched in, in formation. A long line of slaves trailed in, chained together. Owen watched them, but he could not pick out Nai’s blonde hair. He raised his chin high, and closed his eyes. He concentrated on his breathing, trying to cut out the sound of the crowd, and the pain and cold. He concentrated hard, but he still couldn’t completely cut it out. He was aware of it all. He took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. The crowd surrounded the platform. He looked across all the fearful, angry peasant faces. The crowd parted.
Owen watched Cardowac come through the middle of the crowd. He was dressed warmly, with a black leather coat over his silver mail. Owen took another deep breath to calm himself, and looked off into space. Cardowac reached the platform. The soldier unlocked one hand of the irons, and brought his hands to the front. He chained him to the large post in the center of the platform. Cardowac climbed the stairs.
Owen stood, one hand chained to the post. His head was shoved down on the block. He could see a second man approaching through the crowd. He was tall, with a bare head, shaved. His face was bearded. He held an axe. It was much the same as the one that Owen would have used to cut wood back home. It had a single, palms length wide blade, sharpened, cruel, steel. Owen closed his eyes. He felt wet snow begin to fall.
Somewhere, a drum began to beat. Or maybe that was just his heartbeat. A tear formed in the corner of his eye. His life was about to end. He was about to be finished. The crowd was silent. All that could be heard was the beat of the drum. It grew faster, and faster. He heard the heavy footsteps on the stair. He held his breath. The drum stopped. There was silence. Only a harsh scraping sound of a blade being sharpened was heard.
Owen opened his eyes one more time. He looked out across the crowd. The people were silent, watching him. He heard footsteps walk across the platform, and saw Cardowac walk in front of him. Cardowac’s voice rang out.
“This, is what happens to someone who defies the imperial government! This, is what happens to rebellious, treasonous people.” He turned, raising his hand as a signal to the executioner. “And this…” Several twangs sounded. Owen wondered who was playing music, when suddenly he realized what it was. Bowstrings. He heard a thud. A familiar voice echoed across the courtyard.
“And this, is what happens to tyrants!”
An arrow sprouted from Cardowac’s shoulder. He growled, and tugged it out, jumping off the platform and running to his soldiers. Arrows flew from the roof s of the houses around the square. They fell into the soldiers, who were caught off guard.
Owen started to lift himself, when a large body fell upon him. It was the executioner. His axe fell just out of Owens reach. The huge body lay on him, pulling his arm painfully from the post. He tried to push it off. The snow fell hard, making the visibility low.
Chaos reigned in the courtyard. Most of the villagers had disappeared into the sidestreets, but the soldiers had formed a defensive line, shields up, trying to find a target to fix their attack on. Their attackers were everywhere. A horn blew. Owen heard the sound of horses galloping. A group of masked cavalrymen galloped into the village square, and fell upon the soldiers. Owen struggled to push the body off, but it was too heavy. The chain cut into his wrist. It bled down his arm.
Cardowac screamed orders to his mass of soldiers, but they were in full rout. They turned, and ran out the village streets. Cardowac turned, and speared one of his attackers, knocking the man to the ground. He swung into his saddle, and galloped out of the village. Owen grimaced.
He collapsed, giving up on trying to get rid of the heavy body. The warm blood dripped from his wrist. He lay there, weak, for a while. He could hear the cheering of men, and the sound of chains being undone. It was cold. He began to be covered in snow. He felt the heavy weight lifted off, and his chain being undone. He was pulled to his feet. He looked around, dazed. He saw the face of Molner, bloodied. He saw masked faces of several other men, and he could see the snow falling. His head spun.