Owen stood inside the small fighting ring, a heavy weighted wooden sword in hand. One of the other trainees stood across from him, a staff in his hands. Owen braced himself, and then charged. The trainee, Dalt, blocked the blunt sword with his staff, spinning it to hit Owen in the side of the head. Owen ducked, and knocked the staff out of his way, stabbing. The man spun out of the way, and this time succeeded in hitting Owen in the chest. He winced, but managed to pull back from the blow so he didn’t receive it’s full power.
He brought his sword in front, and circled warily, watching his opponents every move. Dalt swung, and Owen blocked, kicking, and hit his opponent in the knee. The man stumbled, and Owen swung down his sword, hitting the man in the shoulder with the flat of the blade. He fell, cursing, then rolled to his feet, and charged, swinging. Owen, caught off guard by the sudden attack, fell back, blocking and ducking frantically.
The man landed a few blows, and Owen felt sore. But he stood firm. The man hit his fingers. Owen winced as he felt his fingernails smash, and then struck out with his fist. It collided with Dalt’s chin, and then Owen lashed out, hitting him in the side. He fell back, collapsing onto the ground. He groaned. The man was only in his early twenties, and only looked a little angry at having lost to a 15 year old. He grabbed Owen’s leg, and flipped him onto his back. Then he leapt upon him, pulling his staff around Owen’s neck. Owen felt the wood constricting his throat. He struggled for air. His eyesight grew bleary, and he struggled. The trainee held him firmly.
Owen woke up, lying on the hard stone outside the fighting ring. He felt woozy. His throat was sore, and he was sweaty. Kallan sat over him, looking angry. Owen sat up, and leaned on the railing.
“What... what happened?” He rubbed his head.
Kallan swore. “That son of a jackal tried to murder you.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I dealt with that, though.”
He helped Owen up.
Owen leaned on the fence. A group of people surrounded them. Nai was among them. Owen’s head felt foggy. He swayed slowly, trying to regain his balance. His felt a pounding in his head.
“What the h--- happened?”
One of the trainers walked forward. “He got carried away. He will face punishment,” he looked at Kallan, “Once he’s recovered.”
Owen looked at Kallan. “What did you do to him?”
Kallan grinned nonchalantly. A little too nonchalantly. “I gave him some bruises to remember.”
Owen sighed, and grabbed his arm, pulling him to the side, through the crowd, and to the wall, away from the group of people. “Remember, we have to get these people to like us. That does not include getting in fights that aren’t your own.”
Kallan shrugged. “I didn’t. We’re brothers, remember? The fight was justified. He could have killed you.” Owen took a deep breath, and then put his hand on Kallan’s shoulder. “Thanks.” Kallan just nodded, and turned, looking across the courtyard.
Owen turned, and looked back, leaning on the wall. He rubbed his throat a little, still feeling a bit sore. He couldn’t help but feel that this day would haunt both of them for a long time.
“We’ve both made an enemy today.”
Kallan nodded. “Aye. But he’s the least of our worries. We’re both popular with the council. He can’t touch us.”
Owen felt uneasy, but he just nodded, and began to walk to the archery range.
Owen got back from his afternoon of hard work at the forge to find Kallan not in the cabin. He shrugged, and then began to eat his food, which was now cool. The stew was fairly tasteless today, but he ate it ravenously all the same. He slurped it up, and then went outside, wrapping himself in his heavy cloak for warmth. It was bitter cold, and dark, but lanterns were lit, so he was able to see quite well. He sat in front of the cabin, thoughtful. Kallan appeared from the darkness.
He saw Owen, and sat down next to him. Owen raised an eyebrow, but it was lost in the darkness.
Kallan nodded. Owen shook his head with a grunt.
Kallan looked at him, surprised. “What?”
“Nothing. Just could look bad.” Owen kept his face hidden by the hood.
Kallan brooded for a few moments. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”
He saw a tall man, or more of an old boy, sitting next to a fire, trimming a piece of wood with his knife. Another lad sat nearby, staring into the fire quietly. He was handsome, and Owen knew he would be one of those boys who were envied for the amount of female attraction they received. His hair was swept back. They both were dressed respectably, but not fancily.
The room they sat in was stone. A small dark window was to one side, but no light shone through it. Owen moved closer as one of the boys began to speak.
“Card, you ever think about what you could do someday?” The taller boy spoke as he whittled away at the small piece of wood. He paused, and continued. “Like, going on adventures, and travelling, and serving the kingdom?”
The other boy, Card, looked up from his idle fire gazing. “Ah, I don’t know. I could see myself being a soldier. Maybe getting to the top. But I don’t hold much stock in the king. Foolish old bloke. I could run the kingdom better than he does.”
The other boy looked a bit surprised. “Don’t talk like that, my friend! The king is our ruler, and it is our duty to be loyal.”
Card shrugged. “It doesn’t hold much stock for me. If a better ruler were to come, than I’d support him. I’d want someone strong and wise to rule.”
The other boy shook his head. “We have peace. I should think that’s all we could ask for.”
Card kicked the fire idly. “Peace, when most of the kingdom is made up of ignorant, lazy, peasants?” He scoffed, and looked as if he were going to say more, but the other boy stood, stopping him.
“Look, Card, I’m your friend. But you know how I feel about your politics.” He turned to leave. “We can be friends without sharing views.”
Card shrugged, and turned back to the fire as the other boy left the room.
And Owen’s dream changed.
He ran through rough brush, the thorns catching on his ragged clothes and skin. He heard the barking of dogs behind him, and he heard his own voice repeating a single name. Gwen… Gwen! With a start, he woke.
Owen struggled with the heavy weight, heaving it above his head. He could slowly feel his limbs going stronger, but his body seemed to be fighting the progress he made. His upper body had not yet grown, so although he was faster, leaner, and stronger than he was before he had begun training months ago, he still felt awkward. He dropped the weight, breathing hard, and stretched, flexing his muscles.
He glanced across the training area, and saw Dalt practicing archery. He had proved to be just as much of a problem as Owen had foretold. He could not hurt Owen or Kallan, but he made them as miserable as he possibly could. He seemed to have a vindictive anger toward both of them. This especially annoyed Kallan, who seemed especially concerned with his appearance lately.
Owen couldn’t help but laugh whenever Kallan saw a puddle or something reflective. He would immediately begin fixing his hair, and straightening his tunic. He seemed to find quite a bit of time to get away from his duties. Owen was too busy training and working at the anvil to worry about the state of his hair. He tensed his muscles and lifted the next weight.
He thought about Nai. In fact, she filled his thoughts for a great deal of the time he was working. He still felt confused sometimes, but the work distracted him from the confusion, and he usually just accepted things how they were.
His mind was busy with questions, imaginings, and thoughts of the future. But his reasoning mind held back some of his imagination enough to not let it take over. It was how it was, and he would focus on the present. He was too practical to let his imagination take over his life when he sat on the brink of war. He knew not what would happen over the next few years.
Owen headed to a bench, where he took a seat and rested. He was tired, and decided to take a break. He had already worked hard today. He leaned back, stretching his legs out. He winced a bit at the tingling pain all over. He was sore. He reached down for a skin of water, and took a long draught. The cold water rushed down his throat.
He stood, grabbing his over-shirt and pulled it over his head, and walked out the gate. Today was his day off, and he meant to enjoy it. He splashed his water on his hair, trying to make it lay flat, and then headed for the kitchen. He knew Nai would be there, as most of the women lately were at work preparing food for a great deal of the day. He slipped in quietly.
Nai was at work, her hair bound behind her head in a tight bun. She was kneading bread, but looked as if she would be done in a moment. Owen walked up next to her and began to help. She looked up, a little surprised, then smiled and returned to her work. After a moment, they were finished, and she put them in a bowl. Then she slipped outside. Owen followed. They sat down on a bench.
“You’ve been busy lately.” She said, looking at him.
“We all have.” He leaned back on the brick wall. “Today I get a break.”
Nai nodded. “I’ll only have a few minutes.”
Owen nodded. “How have you been?”
Nai shrugged. “Just a lot of preparing food and readying supplies for war.”
Owen looked up at the sky through the gaps in the ceiling. “Same. Between training and the shop, I’ve been working super hard.” He looked at her. “No more than anyone else, of course.”
She nodded, quiet for a moment. She pulled out a piece of parchment, and passed it to him. “I wrote this, I was curious what you would think.”
Owen read it thoughtfully. It was a long poem. It told of feelings, and love, and things of that sort. It was pretty stuff, though he did not understand it all. He smiled.
“It’s good!” He passed it back. “It’s very good.”
She smiled “You think so? Thank you.” They sat there for a moment, quiet. Finally, Nai stood.
“I better go back in.” Owen stood, and opened his arms tentatively. She hugged him quickly, and then headed back in.
“I better go back in.” Owen stood, and opened his arms tentatively. She hugged him quickly, and then headed back in.
The horn call sounded, echoing through the caverns with an odd frequency. Owen winced a bit as his ears caught the high note. He looked up the hill toward the castle, than began to run toward the sound, curious. Another horn blast rang out. By now a large number of people were headed up the hill.
Several more months of training and work had passed. Owen felt restless in the caves, but he was so busy that he only had a few chances to hunt. Once food had grown low, so he had been sent out, but usually he had no time.
He ran up toward the castle as another horn-blast echoed throughout the cavern. Owen entered the castle. The courtyard was already full of people, all pushing to see to the front. The leaders of the rebels stood on a platform in the training area. That was where the horn call had come from. Owen craned his head just a bit to see over the crowd of people.
It seemed as if the entire rebellion was gathered. Owen slipped up the wall, above the crowd, to get a better view. He sat above the chaos and watched. The horn sounded again. Owen glanced back. The whole cave was full of people gathering to the castle. They crammed into the courtyard. Some people began to spill up onto the wall. Owen moved up onto one of the battlements, watching the main platform. Voices echoed off the cavern walls, filling the courtyard with tumultuous sound. It was deafening.
When the courtyard and wall were filled tightly, the horn sounded again. The crowd grew silent. Corwin stepped to the front of the tall platform, and spoke loudly across the castle grounds with his loud, booming voice. Owen strained his ears.
“Preparations have been made! Work has been done! Everyone has done his part in this gathering, this final training for the march on our great enemy. And we are ready!”
Someone began a cheer. It swelled across the crowd, into a roar of voices. Corwin smiled, and then raised his hand for silence.
“The assault will begin! As of a week, the army of the rebellion will march from here, and begin the campaign!”
Another cheer went up. Owen couldn’t help but smile, and soon, he was cheering along. The roar echoed so loudly Owen was sure that it could be heard through the mountain in Moransford. It swelled until it was like the sound of a mighty waterfall at full power when the winter snows melt.
Corwin smiled, this time letting the cheer go on. When silence finally came again and the echoes quieted, he began to speak again.
“Men, ready your armor and weapons. Women, give them your thanks, and send with them your spirit. They will win back the kingdom for you.” He paused. “You will be assigned your unit tomorrow, first thing in the morning. Lines will be formed, and you will receive your orders. Housing will be converted. You will be staying in a barracks with your unit until all forces begin to mobilize in one week. You will do your final training together, and learn to fight as a single force. We will wipe the evil, the treachery, the corruption, away from this land!”
A final cheer went up, this one louder than either were before. Horns began to blow, and Corwin stepped off the platform. The cheer echoed. Owen glanced back and saw Kallan on the wall, cheering and howling like a madman. He grinned at Owen. Owen smiled back. They were finally going to war.
Owen woke early the next morning. The sun was not yet shining. Already the other men were beginning to stir. Owen stood, and slipped on his over-shirt and boots, along with his boot knife and cloak. He smacked Kallan in the head with little ceremony.
Owen shook him. “Get up! We want to get up to the castle early.” Kallan groaned, but sat up.
Owen grinned at his bedraggled friend, and headed out the door. He could see torches lit at the castle already. He made his way quickly up the hill.
Already a line was forming. The gate was closed except for the small door in the larger gate, which was blocked by a guard. Owen was glad he had made it early enough that he wasn’t far back, but he realized that it would still be a long wait. He sat down on the ground, and wrapped himself in his cloak.
He sat for hours. The cold bit into his skin, but he just wrapped himself more tightly in his cloak. Kallan arrived only a few minutes after he did. Soon, the line stretched out behind them, down the road.
It was after sunrise when the line finally began to move. Owen stood, and moved slowly through the line as it trickled through the door. Finally, after the cavern finally began to warm with the sun, they made it through the door. A line of tables sat in front of the keep. Owen craned his head to see the lists of parchment. Only two people were in front of them. Suddenly, Owen turned to Kallan.
“Let five people go in front of you!”
Kallan looked confused.
“Just do it! Hurry!” Kallan shrugged, and then turned, letting several men go in front of him. Owen was the next up. He walked to the table, lifting his head high.
“Name?” The dry looking man at the table looked up at him, holding a quill ready.
“Sixteen.” Owen was only fifteen, but his birthday was in only a few weeks, and he would soon come of age. He was tall enough, anyway. The man looked him up and down, and then jotted something down on the paper. Then he turned to one of several long lists.
“You will be assigned to the unit of Commander Morgen.” He wrote Owen’s name in concise handwriting on the list.” He looked up.
“You will be in barracks four, on the eastern quadrant. You will move their immediately. You will receive your uniform at the end of the table. Move along.”
Owen turned, and moved quickly to the crates of uniforms. Several men stood there, helping the new recruits choose the right size of the basic brown infantry uniform. A tall man with gangly arms had him hold out his arms, while he lifted a few different ones. He smiled.
“This one looks quite right!” Owen slipped it over his head. It fit snugly, but not overly tight.
“Perfect.” Owen grinned, and then folded it, and moved out the gate, back down toward the cabins. He glanced back. Kallan was trotting down the hill behind him, holding his tunic under his arm.
“I got assigned to Captain Morgen.”
Owen winked. “Told you to go five back.”
A look of understanding came over Kallan’s face.
“Oooh…” He grinned. “So we’re together?”
They moved down toward the cabin, passing the long line of men. Owen looked over at Kallan, and grinned again. He felt strangely giddy. He had seen pain, and battle, but this seemed different. Kallan grinned right back. Owen could see he felt the same way.
They moved down to the cabin, and slipped in. It was empty. All the other men were still in line. Owen began to pack his things into his trunk. He crammed his empty pack on top of everything, and then strapped his sword and weapons on top of the trunk. Then he lifted it, and moved out. He headed for the east quadrant, across the main road.
He scanned the barracks’ for the roughly cut marks that would show which barracks he was assigned to. Finally he saw the five marks, and headed inside. Two men were already there, unpacking. Owen slipped to a corner bunk, setting his trunk on the floor. He slipped to the corner bed and began to unpack.
He slipped his weapons under the bed, putting them under his mattress; keeping it hidden, making sure neither of the two men were watching. Then he rolled out his blanket, and laid his cloak out. Now his bed was made. He slid his trunk under the bed, and sat back. Kallan moved in, his trunk on his shoulder, and claimed the bunk above Owen.
He looked unhappy, contrary to how he had looked only a few minutes before. Owen raised an eyebrow.
Kallan just shook his head and began to set up his bed. Owen pulled himself up onto his bed.
Kallan looked a tiny bit surprised at Owen’s question, but he nodded, unhappy.
“If you need something, let me know. I’m going out.”
Owen slid off, and headed out the door.
He thought as he walked. He glanced back as he had a realization. Kallan was a year younger than Owen. He stopped, a bit torn for a moment, and then he decided to let it go. Kallan looked old enough to join the rebels. Nothing would come of it. The small breach of honesty bothered him, but he decided that he would rather have Kallan fighting by his side.
He walked down to the lake, and began to skip flat pebbles off the dark, still surface. Ripples spread across the shadowy water, reflecting the light in strange ways on the surrounding rocks. He clambered up on top of one of the large boulders, and slid down through a hole in the rock, worn away by water. He dropped into the small cave, with a pond slowly draining out one side. Owen crawled through an opening on the side, and sat down. He sat over the water, completely hidden from the rest of the cavern. He sat, looking across the dark lake. It was quiet. Only the quiet echo of voices from the castle could be heard.
Owen leaned back on the smooth, water worn rock. He sat for a few minutes, deep in thought. Even though he felt a sense of excitement, a nagging feeling of something wrong clawed at him. He narrowed his eyebrows as he thought of General Corwin. Something about the man irked him. He sat up, and crawled back into the cave. He lifted himself out, back on top, and slid down the side.