Owen stalked the small herd of deer, his bow in hand. The long hunt of the past few days had culminated in tracking this herd onto a knoll on the south-west of the mountain. Owen had left his pack with the masked and hooded soldier, Fray, who lay in the snow far behind, where Owen had him stay, still in sight. Owen put an arrow on the string, and crept forward a few more feet. He knelt behind the tree.
It was still a long shot, and he wasn’t yet comfortable with shooting that far with his simple hunting bow. He crept forward, keeping his bow out of the snow, until he was only 50 or so paces from the herd of does. He took aim for a large doe, bringing the string to his cheek. He breathed slowly, steadily. He brought the tip of his arrow onto the doe, and released the string with his breath.
The arrow flew straight and true, and Owen grinned as it found its mark in the vitals of the deer. It fell, struggling a bit. The other deer jumped, and then bolted. Owen stood, and called back to the guard. His dark form stood, and made his way up to the corpse. Owen looked down on it happily. It was his first large animal since that day, weeks ago, when he and Kallan had killed the bear. He knelt, and slit its throat, pointing the head downhill to let the blood drain.
His heart still pumped with the adrenaline of the hunt, but all he could think of was how much meat he had provided. It was but a small amount compared to the size of the rebellion, but he had given something, and he was proud.
Fray reached him, and pulled down his mask. He was a few years older than Owen, young, fit, and game to follow Owen all over the mountain. He was naïve when it came to hunting, but he had been a good companion. Now he watched as Owen stripped to his bottom layer and rolling up his sleeves, despite the cold, and began to butcher the deer.
He slit the skin up the front of the deer, and began the smelly, bloody work. He did it with a quick familiarity, as Fray watched him. He finished the gutting, and began to skin it. Soon the skin was off, and he removed the quarters, and any extra meat that he could. He wrapped all the meat in the skin, and packed it into one of their large packs. One pack held most of their camping supplies, while the other was mostly empty. He packed the meat in, and then began to attach the quarters to the packs with a few straps. They were heavy, and it would be a long walk back. He washed his hands in the snow, and put the rest of his layers back on, now shivering a bit.
Owen hefted his pack over his shoulders, maneuvering it over his quiver, and readied to move. He knew that wolves and other animal would be coming after the carcass, so he wanted to move on as quickly as possible. Fray lifted his pack onto his shoulders, and they headed north, back up the mountain.
They were silent for a while, huffing a bit as they ascended a steep rise. Finally Fray broke the silence.
“You’re used to this.”
Owen nodded. “Fairly. It’s how we survived.”
Fray hefted his pack higher on the shoulder, and nodded. “I’ve never seen it done.”
Owen looked up the mountain as the sun rose higher. “You’ll be used to it no time.”
They reached the secret southern gate a little after noon, proudly showing their kills. The guards let them in, and they headed up the tunnel. They came into the main chamber, and went immediately to the food storehouse. It was one of the most well guarded places in the entire cave, with a heavily armed well trained group of guards. Owen gave their kill over to them, and then he bid Fray goodbye and headed back to his cabin.
He came to it from behind. He heard Kallan’s voice, and hid behind a stalagmite, intending to surprise him. He crept up behind the cabin, seeing Kallan sitting there. But he paused at the sight of the young slave girl. They were in quiet conversation. Owen grinned, and turned, going around the front of the cabin quietly. He hid his weapons under the bed, and stashed his pack. He folded his cloak, and put it on his bed. He kept a single dirk in his boot, for safety, and then headed back to talk to Kallan.
He cleared his throat a couple of times loudly, and tripped on a few rocks on the way back, making his passage obvious enough that Kallan knew he was coming before he made it back. He was standing up as Owen came round the corner. The girl stood as well. Kallan looked a bit disgruntled at being interrupted, but he smiled when he saw Owen.
Owen grinned and nodded the affirmative. “A nice big doe.”
Kallan nodded appreciatively. “Very nice.” Owen stepped forward.
“I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The girl stepped forward. Kallan looked between them.
“This is Audrey.” He said, smiling, a tinge of red on his cheeks. Owen grinned, and nodded.
“The name’s Owen.” He punched Kallan in the arm, and looked up toward the castle.
“You know when training starts again?” Kallan blushed brightly. He stuttered. “Well… erm… it is going on right now.” Owen grinned wryly, and turned. “I guess we better be heading up then, right?” Kallan nodded, and followed quietly, but not before hugging Audrey goodbye.
They headed up toward the castle. Owen grinned at Kallan. He looked a bit tired. He glanced up, and Owen winked at him. Kallan smiled a bit. They walked slowly up, taking their time, quiet. They reached the castle, and entered the open gate. Owen walked over and began to bind his hands for another round at the punching bag. Kallan started practicing his archery. He seemed more than a little distracted, but still managed to hit the target. Owen punched the leather bag, chuckling a bit to himself.
Over the next few weeks, the boys trained. Owen went hunting a few more times, but it seemed as if their training was pushed to the max, and sometimes he was just too exhausted. Every night he fell into bed, and it didn’t take long to drift off. He saw Nai several times, but usually just at meals. He was almost always tired, blistered, and sore, but he could feel his body growing stronger. He had to fight the urge to give up some days, but he knew that if he was to face the battlefield, he would need to be as strong as he could get.
Owen and Kallan both trained hard, but somehow Kallan managed to slip away every once in a while. Owen was skeptical, and a little worried about the situation between him and Audrey, but he tried to avoid mentioning it. Owen worried that Audrey was not the right girl for Kallan. She was flighty, and dramatic. What Kallan needed was someone to hold him down to earth, not encourage him to take off. Owen hoped he would be enough to hold Kallan down and keep him from going out of his depth. Owen didn’t doubt his friend that much, but sometimes he grew troubled, wondering if Kallan really knew what was going on.
The search parties never found the family. The leadership soon turned to other things, and Owen felt a bit of contentment and pride at having helped them escape.
Owen finally managed to get the time to request an apprenticeship to a blacksmith. The leaders were grateful for anymore assistance with the weapons and armor of the rebels, and he was immediately sent to work.
He worked hard, between training in the morning and working in the shop. He was always exhausted, sweaty, and sore when he reached the end of the day. He learned much from the smith, Ciaran, more than he had ever known under Ho’rin. He learned the subtleties of forming metal, of folding the blades of swords, of shifting the metal in the fire to get the right temperature. He was amazed, and his skill grew immensely with the practice.
In late winter, when the temperature was bitter, and the cavern was heavy with snow, the announcement was made. The rebellion would begin their attack on the empire. They had stockpiled and trained, and now the final preparations would be made. Work reached a fevered pace.
Owen sweated as he put his sword into the forge for the final heating as his master watched carefully. This was his first real sword on his own. He had forged some hammer heads and axes in the past weeks, but this was a new experience. Despite the bitter cold, Owen wore only his light undershirt and a leather apron. There was sweat on his brow and his hands shook a bit as he moved the red hot sword to the trough of cold water nearby. Sweat billowed up.
Owen let it sit for a moment before pulling it out again with the tongs and putting it back in the fire. Steam from the water droplets filled the shop as he repeated the process. Finally, he set the dark sword on the table. He was amazed at how it had turned out. Kallan’s sword was fine, but this was so much stronger, he could tell already. He took it to the grindstone, and began to sharpen it. Once it began to taper down to a sharp edge, he brought out his whetstone, and began to sharpen.
He felt the edge. It was sharp, but not too sharp. It was just the right sharpness to cleave through armor, and yet not chip. He was satisfied. He wondered if his master would be. It was dark grey. The handle was rough, but some time on the grinder and a leather wrap would solve that problem.
He began to polish it, Ciaran watching it carefully. He held it up, and looked at it closely, then he smiled.
“Good work, lad.” He rubbed the blade with his rough fingers. “You’ll get better with time and practice, but this is a very good start.” He held it out, and gave it Owen. “Keep it, lad.” Owen grinned, and took it, wrapping it in a piece of heavy cloth. He looked back. It was growing dark. Ciaran grinned.
“Go ahead, lad. Take the rest of the evening off.”
Owen smiled. “Thanks!” He slipped off his apron, and grabbed his extra clothes. He turned, the sword under his arm, and headed toward the cabin. Kallan would have picked up his rations already, so he would have food when he reached the cabin. It was cold. He pulled on his over shirt.
He moved into the cabin. The men sat around, eating. Bread and stew were the fare, as usual. Kallan had his mouth full, but he pointed down to where Owen’s bowl sat, on the shelf next to his bed. He shoved the sword under his bed, and then lay back, eating his stew. It was warm, and he sopped it up with the hard brown bread.
It was hearty, and he was happy to have some sustenance after the long day. He let the warm rich broth soak the hard bread, and then ate it quickly. It was filling, and he was almost satisfied. He turned, and lay back on his pillow.