Marcus scowled as he crouched behind the small buildings. He could see Keegan and the rest of the family. Kallan. He didn’t deserve to be part of the family. The ungrateful wretch. He gritted his teeth. He readied himself, directing his anger toward one target. The guards ahead. Two men stood guard on either side of the gate. He looked ahead. Shadows fell. Their absence would not be noticed until the guard was changed. Marcus knew that they would need to move quickly. The children would slow them down. But he would never leave them behind.
He braced himself, waiting for his father’s signal. He looked across. Although his father seemed to have recovered from the whipping surprisingly quickly, Marcus knew that it had to have taken a toll on his body. He was not as young as he used to be. Marcus knew he had to keep a close eye on his father. Marcus drew his mask over his face. Then Keegan gave the signal.
Marcus dashed forward, his light boots padding softly on the smooth cave floor. He leapt for the guard from behind a stalagmite. The guard fell with a look of surprise as Keegan dispatched the other with a blow to the side of the head. The guards fell with a clank. Marcus glanced back, scanning the darkness for any sign of anyone. Keegan motioned his hand, and pulled on the handle of the door. It creaked open just enough for them to fit through. The children and Kaylee ran across the open area, dodging behind rock formations and to the gate. They went through.
Marcus and Keegan quickly tied and gagged the guards to a natural pillar, a little ways off of the main track. Then they slipped through the cave, into the doorway. Keegan pulled the door shut, and they were in pitch blackness. Keegan grabbed Marcus arm, and they slowly linked together. Keegan counted them in hushed voice, their small voices breaking the silence as he called their names. Then they set out, Keegan in front, feeling for the wall, and Marcus in the back, holding the hand of his littlest sister, Kassi. Her small hand trembled. He held it firmly, affirming her. They led on, quickly as they could afford in the darkness. They would risk no light.
Finally, they stopped, and the road took a sharp turn. It began to go steeply down. They moved quickly. Suddenly a light appeared at the far end, beyond the slope. They stopped. Marcus stopped, and slipped to the front of the line. He spoke in the quietest tones he could.
“I will go forward and see what we are up against.” Keegan said nothing for a moment, than reluctantly gave his permission. The family clustered together. Marcus crept forward, masked face, readied bow.
Three men sat near a small metal brazier. They spoke quietly, but Marcus was able to get close enough to hear their conversation.
“Tis cold here.” Said a young sounding voice.
“Get used to it, lad. You’ll be cold till spring. Even then, you’ll be cold. Not till summer is it really comfortable here.” Another voice, this one older, answered.
Another voice spoke. “At least we get our guard changed tomorrow.”
Marcus crept closer, sliding a dagger out of its leather sheath. He could so easily creep up and slit all three throats before they knew. But he paused. He remembered something that Stephan had once said about mercy. One day, when the three young boys had excitedly told him of their imaginary battles, he had sat them down around him and told them this:
“Remember lads, killing leaves a stain on your soul. But mercy, that’ll heal you. And knowing when to leave life alone is a gift.”
Marcus paused and savored the memory. Then he paused, thinking of the best way to do this. He ran up the hall, until he reached the family some distance up.
He had a hurried whisper conversation with Keegan. They padded forward, the family behind. Marcus knew that they had no time to talk the guards into letting them out now. It was now or never. They had to escape, or they would be trapped. He slipped up, hiding behind the brazier. Then, with a sudden kick, he knocked it over. Coals flew up, blinding the guards. Marcus found a body in the faint light, and slammed him against the wall, before knocking another out with a quick tap to the side of the neck. Keegan had the other in a stranglehold, and he soon stopped squirming.
In the faint light, they tied them, and stuffed them together under the bench they had been sitting on. A large key hung on ones belt. Keegan felt for the key hole, at about shoulder height, and unlocked the door. He tried to push, but grunted. Marcus braced his shoulder, but the door only budged a bit. Kaylee and the children all began to push, and it finally cracked.
The moonlight seemed strangely bright as they broke out onto the snowy- ground. Marcus could see the land stretching out below. He looked down to his right, and he could see the faint lights of Moransford. Away to the north he could see the red rocks, and the mountains stretching away. And to the west, he could see Beartooth in the distance, snowy and familiar. The family stood for a moment in the frosty air. It was cold, but they were all bundled up in all the clothes they had received from the rebellion. Keegan turned, and they headed west, toward home.
Owen awoke to a massive pounding in his head. He rolled over, opening his eyes, and then realized the pounding was on the door, not in his head. He sat up, whacking his head on the bed frame. He winced, rubbing the top of his head with his hand as he stood up, this time more carefully. A few of the other men were stirring. A voice came from outside the door.
“Open up, this is the guard!”
Owen stumbled to the door, and swung it open. The tall guard outside stopped mid swing of his hand, and lowered it. He looked down at a parchment in his hand.
“Owen and Kallan Keeganson! By order of the council, you are to come with me to the keep. If you resist, you will be forced.”
Owen had no intention of resisting the five burly men. He looked back. Kallan was sitting up in his bed, attempting to look nonchalant. Owen could see an edge of fear over his features. He looked back at the guard.
“Let me get my boots on.”
The guard nodded. “No tricks now.” Owen shook his head, and then went back to his bed, looking back at the guard carefully. The man watched him. He reached down and pulled on his boots, then slipped on his second shirt. By now all the men were up, watching them silently.
Owen stood, and came to the door, Kallan following. The guard moved out of the way as they walked down the steps. The men surrounded them as they began to walk up toward the castle, following the road. It was still dark in the cave, although above them, Owen could see the blue of the sky begin to lighten.
As they drew nearer to the castle, Owen could see an unusual quantity of movement just inside the open gate. They entered the gate, and Owen looked around as they moved toward the keep. Men moved quickly around, masked, readying horses and weapons. Owen looked at the guard.
“What is going on?”
The guard grunted, not answering, and then led them into the keep.
Owen followed him, feeling uneasy. As they entered the keep, he glanced back. The soldiers rode out the gate, trotting quickly down through the caves.
The guard led them up the stairs, past the windows, and then finally into the hallway to the council room. The members of the council sat sternly around the table. The guard pushed the two boys into the room, and then pushed them down into two chairs. Then he turned, and left the chamber. There was silence. General Corwin’s deep voice filled the chamber.
“Early this morning, the gate guards were relieved in their watch. Unfortunately, they were found tied to a pillar near the gate, unconscious and gagged. Even more so, our outer gate guards were to be relieved today. They were found unconscious as well. And even more so, your family is missing. Yet, you are not. Explain yourselves.”
Owen sat quietly. Kallan stared at the wall blankly. There was silence for a few moments. Corwin slammed his fist on the table.
“Speak! They left without permission, after committing treason. They attacked our guards! And, they can now go and betray us to the empire!”
Owen frowned, and cleared his throat. “No matter how little father loves the rebellion, he hates the empire more. He will not betray you. You can trust to that.”
Corwin frowned. “We do not know that. They must be brought back. And their punishment will be all the more harsh.”
Owen frowned, but knew he should choose his words carefully. He knew that if Keegan and Marcus were at their best, it was unlikely the rebels would catch them with a head start once they reached the familiar mountains. Kallan was unusually quiet. He seemed worried.
Corwin frowned, and asked quietly.
“Why are you still here?”
Kallan looked up. “Because this rebellion has the right motives. And because it is better than the evil we have today.”
The General seemed surprised, and thought quietly for a moment. Kallan continued.
“I can’t help but feel loyal to those who saved us and brought us into their army.” He smiled a bit. “I would not betray their trust so easily.”
The council seemed swayed by his words. Corwin looked back and forth between Owen and Kallan for a moment. He stood, and a small smile crossed his old face.
“It is admirable loyalty that would separate you from your family.”
Owen looked up at him. He put on a pleasant face, but inside his heart cried out. “Loyalty, yes, but not to you.”
The man smiled, like a grandfather whose child has just done something admirable. But Owen saw something else in that face. It was not goodwill. The room was much less tense than it had been a moment before.
Kallan looked down at the ground for a moment, looking crestfallen. Corwin walked around the table, until he was behind the two boys.
“Do not fear, lad. We are your family now.” Kallan nodded, wiping his eyes. He smiled, looking determined. Owen looked at him. He wondered if he had made the right choice. There was a new look in Kallan’s eye. One of determination, and little fear. The man pulled an empty chair up near the boys.
“Did anyone, perhaps your brother, or your father, tell you anything of their escape beforehand?”
They both hesitated. Then Kallan spoke. “They did. Last night. Before they left, they tried to convince us to go. But we held firm, and they gave up on us.”
Corwin, still smiling pleasantly, leaned back in his chair.
“You are especially loyal! You should be commended.”
Owen hid his ire at this flattery. Corwin continued.
“Did they tell you where they intended to go?”
Kallan looked at Owen. “They were just trying to get away from here. They did not tell us where they intended to go.”
Corwin looked at Owen. “Did they say nothing to you of this matter?”
Owen shook his head. “Nothing. They told us nothing, even of their plan to escape. I suppose they knew we would prove too loyal, and would tell all.”
A flash of approval came over Kallan’s face. It did not last long enough for Corwin to notice, but Owen did. He suddenly began to grasp what was going on. Corwin continued to probe them, this time starting with Owen.
“Where do you believe they would have gone?”
Owen shrugged. “They would have headed east. Headed to one of the big cities, blend in, and stay away from both you and the empire.”
Corwin nodded, not seeing the fallacy in Owens half lie. Owen consoled himself. It wasn’t a lie. He had never actually been told where they were going. So he didn’t actually know.
Kallan glanced at him, and then nodded. “I think Owen is right. Owen is really the best woodsmen among them, and the best at surviving. I think they would have a better chance in the city.”
Corwin nodded. “Our trackers will follow their trail, as far as it may lead, and will hope to catch them.”
Owen hoped their lies would be enough to mess up the trail.
Owen hoped their lies would be enough to mess up the trail.
Corwin smiled, and stood. Owen and Kallan, feeling that the meeting was over, stood as well. The General saluted them both.
“Welcome to the rebellion, lads.”
Owen and Kallan began training that day. Owen wished they had had time to speak alone, to confirm his thoughts, but they were immediately rushed to the trainers. The gritty old swordsman who was the head trainer immediately began testing their mettle in various ways.
First he had them lift heavy weights, to test their overall strength. They both did well, although neither was as strong as some of the young men that were training. The man than put them to the test with their fists. They padded their hands and stripped down to their trousers. The old man started with Kallan.
They squared off, Kallan moving back and forth on his feet. The old man stood, a slight smirk on his face, steadily, not moving nearly as much on his feet as Kallan. Kallan feinted left, then made a hard swing from the right. The old man blocked it with his arm, than brought his sturdy fist into Kallan’s stomach. Kallan fell back, with a huff of air, but was soon ready again, not quite as cocky as he had been at the beginning.
They both lightly feinted back and forth for a few minutes, Kallan going in circles about the old man, as he swiveled on his feet slowly, always facing Kallan. Kallan finally made a move. Owen could see he was getting impatient. The old man knocked his hand aside, than brought his fist into Kallan’s chest. Kallan let out another huff of air, then went at it again. The fight began to get more lively, Kallan launching in quick punches, while the old man blocked, and occasionally returned an attack. Owen watched carefully, trying to determine how to break the man’s block.
A small crowd began to gather as the two boxed back and forth. Kallan grew steadily more frustrated as he unsuccessfully tried to break the block and get a hit. Finally he made a strong swing at the man’s stomach, and then hit him in the face. The old man stumbled, and Kallan took advantage of the weakness, and began to pound the man in the chest.
Owen could see victory on Kallan’s face, but the man had one last trick up his sleeve. He blocked one hit, and then grabbed Kallan’s hair, flipping him around with one strong twist of an arm. He wrapped his arms around Kallan’s neck and arms, holding him in a headlock. Kallan sat still, breathing hard. He looked like he was about to give up, when he looked up, and locked eyes with a certain slave girl. She watched him seriously. Owen saw the eye contact take place.
Suddenly, Kallan’s body tensed, and he rolled forward. The old man, caught by surprise, flipped over his head, and landed hard on the stone floor. He lay there breathing heavily, for several minutes. Kallan stood, breathing almost as heavily. The crowd was silent, than began cheering. Kallan grinned, and stood up. The old man stood to his feet, and nodded to Kallan, looking a bit disgruntled. Owen felt uneasy going after Kallan.
He walked to the old man, but he shrugged him off.
“I’m done boxing for the day. Let’s get you lads on something else.”
Fortunately, the next few things were mostly simple, and the old man did not try to compete against them for the rest of the morning. Owen was glad, as he did not wish to compete after Kallan’s good show.
They were tested in archery, at which Owen was rusty, but still fortunately better than Kallan. He managed to get a moderate score the first time, and the second, he was back on his game, hitting close to the center.
After the noon meal, Owen and Kallan were free for a few hours to explore. They walked down through the town, chatting idly, and exploring. After a while of walking, they ended up near the castle again, at a large area used by the blacksmiths. Owen sat down, watching the smiths at work. Kallan seemed only a little bored, but Owen stood and walked near one of the shops.
He watched quietly for a moment, when one of the smiths, a large man in a leather apron, came over.
Owen shrugged. “I used to be apprenticed to a smith, but… he died.”
The man opened the gate into his workshop, and beckoned him in.
“Come on in, I’ll show you my shop.”
Owen walked in, looking over the man out of the corner of his eye. He was very tall, clean shaven except for a moustache. He was dirty, with long hair held back in a ponytail. He showed Owen the large forge, and the bellows, and his tools. Owen looked over them all with interest, when Kallan came to the door.
“Owen? Noren wants you.”
Owen looked up, and turned to the smith. “I must go. Thank you for showing me your shop.”
The smith smiled pleasantly. “Not a problem. If you have time, I’m looking for an apprentice.” He winked, and turned back to his work. Owen left, grinning, and followed Kallan just up the hill to the castle. Noren stood near the gate, right inside. He was smiling as Owen came up to him.
“I spoke to General Corwin, and he has granted you permission to hunt, provided you take one of us with you.”
Owen nodded. He would have rather taken Kallan or gone alone, but he would have to earn their trust first.
“Your bow is in the armory.” He pointed toward a room that jutted out from the keep. Owen nodded again.
“Thank you.” He smiled. “I appreciate it.”
Noren turned and headed for the keep.
Owen began to quickly head for the armory. A guard stood in front of the door, but he immediately moved as Owen came near. Owen guessed he had already been informed that he would be coming. The guard unlocked the heavy door, and pushed it open. Owen slipped inside.
Light came in through two iron bound windows above the door, and shone upon racks of weapons. Owen began to search, starting at the bows. He searched through a rack of unstrung bows, until he found his old familiar bow. He looked around for strings, and found them in a box nearby.
His old quiver, still full of arrows, sat nearby, with some others. He turned, and began to search for his daggers. There was a rack of knives near a selection of maces and a few battle-axes. He began to search through, until he found the multiple knives he had collected. They were still sheathed, so he strapped his hunting knives to his belt, and slipped the short soldiers dirk into his boot.
He looked around for his old hatchet, and found it on another shelf, in its leather sheath. He strapped it to his belt as well. He was beginning to feel like he could defend himself now. He walked out, and went to where Noren stood, speaking to a guard.
“Who do you want to come with me?”