Siward has broken Xiden out of the King’s Prison, but the two still have to make their escape.
The escape route the two took was through one of the air ducts which supplied the tunnel with usable breath. Xiden advised Siward to lash his pack to one booted foot, because the man would never fit if he wore it. Xiden did the same and was therefore afforded much more room than his rescuer. The exit hole was not much larger than a groundhog’s hole, so Xiden pulled some of the sod out with his hands to make room for them to get out.
As the two set out across the plains east of Orbin in the dark, they carefully listened for soldiers and horses. They met no soldiers that night and when dawn came, they were safely stowed away in a fruit grove on what was now an abandoned farm. Its deserted nature was personified by crumbling fence posts, a dilapidated house and an overgrown garden. The same features which could be found throughout eastern Rema.
Much Reman land had been deserted in the past months. Dellborad realized his people were slipping away, a family at a time, and getting into territory safer than what his totalitarian rule governed. So he brought them into Orbin and thus tripled the size of the once prestigious and beautiful city. Well groomed streets became death traps, with pick pockets who found killing easier than letting the victims confess to being robbed. There came about a new breed of men in Rema, the beggar and lowlife slave. The vast expanse of forsaken land was turned into large baronages given to notable soldiers, lords and servicemen of Dellborad’s court.
In time, slaves multiplied and were traded or sold among the large land holders who needed manpower to produce crops. With these slaves came another new breed of men, the enforcers, men who administered punishment for unwilling and lazy slaves. These men were usually of the most heartless sort, who derived some perverted pleasure from their duties.
Xiden plucked an apple from the branch above him and bit into it, regarding its sweet flavor and crisp texture. His wild hair seemed to glow in the early morning light. Siward watched him with searching dark eyes. This man was truly rare among men, young as he was. He lived his life fully and never seemed to be at a loss for some mighty act to keep his mind working fully. He derived the greatest pleasure from the most mundane skills and used them to his personal improvement instead of letting them drag on his cheerful countenance. “Doest thou have a plan, my friend?” Siward asked.
“Are we sitting in apple trees?” Xiden laughed light heartedly.
“Flippancy is not an admirable trait,” Siward was solemn. “Thou rests far to easily for this situation.”
“I would not be at ease if I didn’t have a plan.”
“Stay out of sight long enough to get to Arvad.”
Siward dropped his head onto the branch in exasperation. “Nothing else?” he asked weakly. Words were not an area in which he was skilled and Xiden was. Xiden could talk circles around him even if Xiden did not believe in what he was saying. He was simply a clever spokesman.
Xiden frowned at Siward’s consternation and laid his head back likewise. He felt a slight vibration in the branch underneath him. Bolting upright, Xiden dropped to the ground and half crawled to the edge of the grove. Siward came up behind him, all the while scanning through the trees in search of an alarming change. Xiden lay on the ground and looked down the slope to the plains. At first he saw nothing, not being fully used to the light. But in the space of four breaths, he saw what his mind suspected. Riders.
They couldn’t stay in the grove, it would be the first place the soldiers would look. Uttering a curse under his breath, Xiden stood straight up and ran through the trees, capturing the strap of his bag as he ran by the tree. He tucked the apple into his pocket, not wanting to leave the barest evidence.
“We can’t outrun the steeds,” Siward gasped between breaths as he ran after him.
“No. Head north.”
Turning to their left, they raced for the plains beyond the reach of the soldiers.
Alas for the runaways, they didn’t make it. They were very nearly beyond the range of the last soldier when they were spotted. Three men charged them and they were circled. Xiden, wiry and quick, caught the stirrup of the first soldier and yanked him off the horse. His father had always told him size did not win battles, minds won them. He cursed these words in his mind as he had picked a battle he could not win.
Size did win that battle, and Xiden felt himself in a chokehold, strong enough to render him unconscious in a matter of seconds. Xiden’s last thought was a painful one, “I failed my friends.”
The former soldier did better than his younger friend. Not wanting to kill the other soldier, whom he knew, he took his sword and sheath and used it as a club to subtract the assailant from the equation of horse and rider. The saddle was now empty and Siward thought it was a good opportunity to even the odds. His soldier’s mind told him to expect Xiden to be dispatched by now and he knew if that was the case, at least two men were on horses.
But only one man was on a horse and the fact which at first seemed to be fortunate as Siward circled his acquired mount. Alas, it was more sinister as one of the soldiers on the ground slapped a bare sword to the unconscious Xiden’s neck.
“I thought I smelt a burglar in the house,” Dellborad remarked to the young fugitives. His golden crown was gaudy and ostentatious. It had replaced the former Reman crown of silver medallions strung together, which was simple and sufficient for his forbearers. To Siward he continued, “Bina erred in his judgment of thee, my trusted guard.” Dellborad was beginning to stoop with premature age. His graying beard and hair were uncut and intractable. He dangled a silver and black cane from his fingers. Bina was not present today; he was out hunting the two men. “I suppose thou art wondering how I caught thee? Yes, I would be wondering the same,” this time his words were directed at Xiden
“You see, I suspected you were too well liked to be safe in jail, so I presumed the worst of thee. You had to have outside help, naturally. So I allowed the breach in my security to be found, and it was dear Siward. I then sent out my searchers late, with the intention of catching up with you when you thought you were well behind them. Clever wasn’t it? Did you really think I was asinine enough to not realized thou would wait for the gates to close? Tish, tish, thou art smarter than you would have me believe, Xiden.”
Xiden took one long look into the king’s cold, cruel eyes then turned his gaze straight ahead, unwilling to focus on anything. Siward had being doing thus since Xiden woke up, and heaven knows how long before then.
“Don’t ye think me a heartless ruler, and an unfair judge,” Dellborad seemed hurt by Xiden’s lack of interest in his words. “I’m going to give you lads thy lives, just as I would my own son if he were so imprudent as you. You will become part of the new skeleton of my country. Take heart in this, thy king still has use for thee.”
The two were not encouraged.
Dellborad began pacing his elegant, marble throne room with a great air of importance. His silver and blue robes swished gracefully and brushed the tops of his polished black boots. “I’m going to include you two, and thy strong, arrogant backs, the skeleton of my new incarnation of Rema; Rema as it should be.” He spun on his heal and began pacing the opposite direction. His steps took him up the circular dais. “My forefathers were pleased to leave Arvad to itself and agree upon a boundary neither would transgress. But I will admit, I am not so noble. I will drive Quen from Arvad and cause him to cede land to me. Much land. So much he will pay tribute for the very existence of his people. To do this, I need an inexhaustible source of labor to drive fast ships and horses.”
Siward and Xiden looked at one another, expressionless. They knew to what fate he was referring.
“You two will become part of that force; you will become slaves.” With a flourish of his hand, he ascended the dais, then sat down on the black and silver throne. “Take them away and lock them in the special hold,” Dellborad commanded.
The special hold was a small, old fashioned dungeon with more complete measures than were formerly used in ancient times. The pair were strapped in with metal and leather bands around their stomachs, legs and arms. They were allowed to talk, but that was virtually all they were permitted to do. They didn’t take advantage of talking for a very long time.
“I’m sorry, Siward,” Xiden eventually said.
“I helped you escape; I knew the risks.”
“I will get thee out.” Xiden said simply, and matter-of-factly.
The long journey across the plains to the sea was not as long as the trip in the boats. While Xiden and Siward were taken south, Dellborad moved his men east, to harass the Arvadians who dwelt on the Great Plains. They fled beyond the Sable River and Dellborad withdrew within a few days ride of the river. He also seized control of Retyan Lake, then brought up ships to guard it and the mouth of the river where it dumped into the ocean. This was the most tenuous point along his new territory, because the Arvadian city of Dragon Port was just a week’s journey from there.
Day after day, the ex-soldier and Xiden pulled oars and listened to the crack of a whip. In the evenings they greased joints and oiled housings to keep the ship running silently. They were on board with thirty other slaves and two bad tempered enforcers.
By some miracle, Xiden managed to leash his tongue and appear the cowed servant. Only once did the sharp lash of the whip crease his back, creating a pattern with the healing cuts from the id. This particular scar wouldn’t fade in time.
It was early spring when Xiden and Siward helped pull oars up the delta into the Retyan River. Xiden had managed to concoct a plan by this time, but setting it in motion would prove much more difficult than creating it.
Most slaves who spend long times at oars become broken old men before they are old enough to be called mature. But the will power Siward and Xiden displayed had just the opposite effect. When they pulled up the river, they were strong, powerful specimens with incredible endurance. Xiden had grown another few inches in this time, reaching a height not to be disrespected. His days on the upper deck of the schooner had bleached his already golden hair closer to white, and had darkened his skin. Siward had been kept down in the hull mostly, and was just as pale as his friend was tanned.
The sun was setting as they pulled the boat up the last few hundred feet of the channel into the lake. Xiden heard a shout from the upper deck he had been expecting for days. “Put a man on point, the traps’ll be comin’ up soon.”
Luckily, it was time for the prisoners to change sides, they had to be unchained one by one and transferred. At the back of the line, near the tiller, Siward was being loosened. Near the middle, in between the rows of benches and balancing on the keel, Xiden rubbed his wrists like he always did when the shackles were removed. There was nothing unusual about his manner. He held his arms out to the slaver to be refastened. His shoulders were gripped by another man to keep him still. Just when the shackles came off the second slave, Xiden jerked his head back and caught the soldier behind him in the nose. The man cried out in pain and as the other guards turned, Xiden slugged the one standing nearest him.
The soldier holding Siward tightened his grip on the man’s bulky arms, but he was no match for several million strokes of an oar behind the punch that flattened him. Siward bulled his way up the planks, balancing where he could, stepping on benches where he couldn’t and wreaking havoc all the while. Man after man fell under his accumulated strength, until he was overpowered by sheer numbers. He watched Xiden deck another soldier and turn back. But the soldier knew this was Xiden’s only chance, and Xiden knew it too. His duty was to get into Arvad, and freedom; he would come back for Siward later. Ruefully, Xiden turned away and launched himself up the hatch. On deck there was a great deal of shouting, a loud thud, then a terrific splash. Just then the ship was circumnavigating a trap and nothing could be done to prevent the well timed escape. Bows came to the hands of the unoccupied guards on board, but Xiden had vanished in the water.
From the time Xiden dove into the water, and as he pushed himself into the deepest reaches of the river, the youth let the current carry him away from the ship. He had practiced holding his breath the entire trip, knowing he would have to swim in order to get away. His lung capacity was impressive and the ship was merely a glow in the setting sunlight when he reemerged downstream.
Siward knew his punishment was coming. The other men on the ship were mostly Arvadians or Remans who had done some dastardly deed, and they rallied to him in spirit as he was taken above decks, once they were safely docked. Each oar man could hear the sound of the whip crack, and at the thirteenth snap, a cry escaped the lips of the persecuted. It would not be the last.