Monday, January 20, 2014

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

                Owen woke with a start, and after a quick glance out into the darkness, knew it was time. He quickly pulled on his outer clothes, and then grabbed his weapons, and slipped out the door, giving the old man more time to sleep. In the common room, it was quiet, but the fire was still going. The pretty barmaid sat at the counter, asleep. Owen walked quietly by, slipping into the kitchen. He grabbed filled one of his water skins with weak ale and took a piece of cold meat and a  small loaf of rye bread.

                He slipped back out, avoiding the sleeping girl, and brought several coins out of his pouch, setting them quietly on the counter near the girl. Then he turned for the door. This was a well kept tavern, and these were kind people. Owen sighed. Not all are persecuted… He pulled on his cloak, pulling a cloth over his face.

                Outside, it was dark, except for the occasional torch of the night patrols. They were easy enough to avoid, and it did not take long for him to make his way towards the central barracks of the city. He climbed the short rock wall, and slipped inside, avoiding the guards, and then walked quietly to the room of the contact.  

                He paused down the hall, standing in a shadow. Two guards stood outside the door. A feeling of apprehension filled Owen. Who is this man? He crept toward them, padding lightly, staying out of the torchlight. One of the guards turned his direction, and he hid in a doorway. He looked them over. Spears were not a wise choice… He thought, and then he swung upward.

                The pommel of his dagger cracked into his temple, and the guard fell with a thud. The other turned just in time for Owen to repeat the process, and soon the two were tied and stuffed in a nearby storage room.

                Owen felt the handle, and it was not locked. He opened it with a slight creak, wincing at the sound. He stepped quietly inside, drawing a sharp dagger. He closed the door behind him. The room was completely dark, though Owen could see a bit of the dark blue sky through a grate in the far wall.

                He stepped forward, light boots padding on the stone floor. He walked slowly, careful not to knock something over. He could just see the dark shape of a bed in the far corner, and he walked toward it. His foot knocked against something, and he cursed under his breath. A loud snore came from the bed. Owen dropped to hands and knees, holding the knife tightly between his teeth. He crawled steadily towards it, the sound of an occasional snore breaking the silence.

                He stood carefully when he reached the side of the bed. The sleeping figure was just visible in the blackness. Owen took a deep breath, then covered the figures mouth and placed the dagger to his jaw. He felt a bristling beard and mustache, and the person started awake at the touch of cold metal.

                The figure lay there for a moment, shocked and half awake. Owen knelt, still holding the dagger to his throat, and whispered in his ear. “Do not cry for help, or you are a dead man.” He took his hand off the man’s mouth, and pulled him to his feet, holding him with the dagger to his throat. The man breathed deeply, as if trying to calm himself. A low whisper broke the silence.

                “Who are you?”

                Owen made his grip harder, pulling the man to a chair near a desk. It was growing steadily lighter, and Owen knew he did not have much time. He lit a nearby candle, and sat down, the dagger point resting on the man’s chest. Owen turned to face him, and almost stabbed him through right there.


                Owen lowered his hood, revealing his face, his eyes blazing in surprise and anger. For Cardowac it was. He looked at Owen with a fear that Owen had never seen.  Owen mentally cursed Ewan, but turned his mind to the task at hand.

                “You. Always will you be a thorn in my side…”

                Owen gritted his teeth. “Aye. It’s a hobby of mine.” The image of his father’s bloodied corpse came to his mind. “And now, I have all the more to hate you for.”

                Cardowac looked at him, his eyes hard to read in the flickering light. Owen glanced up to the door.

                “Why are you here? I was sure you and your scum had fled to the rebellion.”

                Owen nodded. “Indeed. I’m searching for a piece of information.”         

                Cardowac nodded slowly, his brow furrowed.

                “I need to know the location to which the barbarians took their spoils after the battle.”

                Cardowac glanced over his shoulder at the door. Owen pushed the dagger point against his chest.

                “North.” Owen raised an eyebrow. “The barbarians went north, and their spoils were taken from them at Drenna.”

                “Where were the prisoners taken?”

                “The quarries north of the capitol, typically. Slave labor is always needed by the empire.”

                Owen pondered this for a moment, different plans forming in his mind. The candle light flickered, and Owen again saw the image of the young men, together. Friends. Owen gritted his teeth.

                “A long time ago, you had friends. Until you turned to this madness.”

                Cardowac started, surprised by the change of conversation. “You had one friend, closer than a brother… but even him you turned on.” Owen pressed the dagger to his enemy’s chest. “My father was a good man. He did not deserve to die by the likes of a traitor like you.”

                Cardowac’s eyes grew wide. Owen laughed. “I never told you my name, did I, Card.” He started at the use of the nickname. “My name is Owen Martinson, and you killed my father.”

                A look of surprise and realizations came over Cardowac. He spread his arms wide. “Kill me, then, Martinson.” Owen cursed, out loud, this time. He had his enemy of all this time at the end of a knife, and he could kill him now, finish this once and for all. No longer would he have the shadow of his father’s killer and the destroyer of his village hanging over his life.  Cardowac lowered his head in resignation.

              The enmity between them was strangely intimate. Indeed, it seemed that fate had woven their paths together. The son of his best friend will take his life… ironic…. He looked at the figure of the man, now looking much less evil and more pitiful. Pity is what he deserves, not hate. And pity will hurt him more… Owen sighed. Keegan had once told the boys that kindness would harm an enemy more than burning fire or sharp sword. Owen knew it was true now. He looked at the dagger, and then Cardowac. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. He lowered the dagger.
               “I am not like you, Cardowac.” He looked at Cardowac, seeing the look of surprise.   “Someday, we will meet in a fair fight, and I will kill you.” He struck out, slamming the butt of the dagger into Cardowac’s temple. He slumped over, and Owen turned to leave.

Owen slipped out the door, and ran down the hallway. At this point, it had begun to grow light, and Owen knew he had to move quickly.  Two guards came around the corner, no doubt replacements for the two he had removed. They shouted, and charged toward him. He kicked one in the groin, and then grabbed a torch from the wall behind him and shoved it in the face of the other. He heard a footstep behind him, and he swung, knocking a third guard to the ground.

The sound of the commotion had drawn attention, and Owen turned and fled, his cloak billowing behind him. Doors began to open, half asleep men peering out into the hall. He ran past, guards on his tail, and out the door. Over the wall again, and through the streets, heading for the gate. He hoped the alarm wouldn’t go off before he could slip through.

He dodged down alleys, across streets, and soon had lost the guards. But he continued at a jog, heading for the gates. They would just be opening now, he knew, at sunrise.  But just as he rounded the corner and dashed for the opening gates, the alarm went off. The portcullis began to lower, and Owen swore. 

He ran, summoning a last reserve of speed. He heard hooves thundering in the street behind him. He dove and rolled under the gate, just as it thundered closed behind him. He continued to run, heading for the small rock formation at the edge of the forest. He heard the gate opening again behind him, and he threw all his force into the last stretch.

Ewan was waiting with the horses. Owen decided to save his anger for later, instead climbing aboard Willow and kicking her into a gallop. Ewan led the way into the dense pine forest, weaving through trees. Owen could hear the warning bell still ringing in the city, and knew that soldiers would be on their tail.

They rode hard and fast, until finally they pulled up in a grove of stunted trees in the rocky flats. A hawk circled overhead. Owen glanced back. A dozen light cavalry were in the distance, pursuing. Owen knew they didn’t have much time, but he dismounted, letting Willow take a slight rest. He turned to Ewan, his eyes blazing.

“What kind of game are you playing, Ewan?”

Ewan looked down at him, seeming to understand, but not perturbed.

“You sent me into a bloody trap!” He resisted the urge to hit the old man, but the last bit of respect kept his hand. He spit on the ground with scorn. “You sent me to Cardowac. The one who destroyed my village, and killed my father, if you’ve forgotten.” He glanced back again. The enemy was growing nearer. “And yet you send me, claiming he owes you a debt? Your plan failed, Ewan. I caught him unawares, not the other way around. Did you not succeed in warning him that you were sending the thorn in his side right into his grasp?”

Ewan was silent for a moment. “Did you kill him?” He tried to disguise it, but Owen caught the slight tone of eagerness in his voice. A realization came over him as he understood he had seen this from the wrong angle.

“You want him dead. You wanted me to kill him!” Owen cursed, kicking a rock. “What possessed you to send me as your assassin?”

Ewan sighed. “I am an old man, Owen. I could not overpower Cardowac, even if I did surprise him. I gave you enough warning to know that you should be careful, and left enough out to let you go to him without question. I spoke the truth. He did know the way to find Gwen, did he not?”

Owen nodded, silent. The enemy grew nearer. Finally he spoke, his voice containing anger and distrust. “And what of this debt?”

Ewan looked down sadly. “He killed my son.” Owen looked up at him. So we have both lost much to him.  He looked down.

 “Cardowac still lives.” Ewan concealed a look of disappointment. “I am not like him, Ewan. No matter if I had the ability, it was not a fair fight.” 

Owen was about to reply when he heard the hoof beats of then enemy. He swore. “We’ve tarried too long.” He threw a leg over Willow, and kicked her into a gallop. She was already covered in sweat, but she kept running. Just a little longer. Owen glanced over his shoulder. Ewan was right behind him, and the patrol was not far behind.

Owen looked for an escape plan, but it seemed that there was only brush and rock on the bluffs all around. Owen cursed again. He heard a cry of pain, and the leader of the soldiers fell. He glanced back in surprise.  The soldiers were slowing, looking around for the archer that had shot down their captain. Another arrow flew from above a group of boulders. Out of the corner of his eye, Owen saw a cloak, and another arrow caught a soldier in the chest.

Owen wheeled his horse, pulling his bow from his back. The soldiers slowed in confusion, turning their attention to the new threat. Owen fired an arrow into their midst, taking down yet another soldier, and the hidden archer shot another. Now the soldiers were down five men.  Owen wheeled around them, firing into their midst. He injured two more before they charged him again. Two more men were lost before they reached Owen. He knew there was no more running now, and he pulled out his hatchet and a long dagger.

The soldiers attacked ferociously, apparently intending to kill, not capture. Owen desperately blocked their blows, but was knocked from Willow. She bolted, slamming through the ranks of the larger horses. Owen fell back, the soldiers battering down his defenses. He blocked a spear with his arm. It cut through his bracer and slashed open his arm. He winced, still trying to fight on.

 A sword hurtled downward. He knew he didn’t have the strength to block it. His last thought was that he had never said goodbye to Kallan. He fell back, as a cry of anger echoed, and a figure flew downward in front of him. The sword blow caught Ewan straight in the chest. He fell. Owen struck the nearest leg, and a horse screamed in pain as the blow cut its leg. It fell, almost crushing Owen.

He grabbed a nearby stirrup, using the momentum of the circling horse to pull him up to his feet, and struck out again. And then it was over. He turned, coated in blood, some his own. The last two scouts were fleeing. He dropped to Ewan’s side. The old man was breathing hard. A long slash was across his chest, and he was bleeding. Owen unclasped his cloak and pressed it over the wound.

The old man looked up, life still in him. He started to speak.

“Owen…” he coughed violently.

“Don’t speak, you’ll only make it worse.”

“I must.” He reached out and placed a bloody hand on Owen’s shoulder. “Owen…” He coughed again. “Martin… Martin was my son…”

Owen couldn’t hide the look of surprise that sprouted on his face. “Wh… what?” He felt weak, a feeling of confusion in his stomach. The old man took his hand. “I know… I should have told you before…”

Owen felt a mix of emotions, almost too complicated to explain. He hated this man for not revealing himself, and for betraying his trust. But this was family, and he had never had true family. He wept, hanging his head. Then something struck him, and he remembered. He looked up, toward the rocks from which the archer had fired.

The tall figure stepped out from behind the rocks, carrying a longbow and holding the reins of a sleek bay horse. A hawk circled down from above, landing on the saddle. Owen stood suddenly. He had felt sick, now he felt as if he had been struck in the head. He felt lightheaded. Marcus had returned.


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