He managed to focus his eyes just enough to see the person who had gripped and twisted his arms behind him. The light in his room was bright, but wavering as if a shadow passed by the window or door to his room. There were others. He could plainly see their mismatch cloth and hair twined like serpents under thick turbans. Mercenaries, then. It was all he could see. One of them was attempting to pull a bag over his head. He wrenched his arms free and pushed against the heaviness in the middle of his back and kicked at another. He bolted toward the door and stopped short. It was not sunlight which flooded his small bedroom. Flames consumed his home beyond frame of the door. Bodies were entangled in melee - four of them; they disappeared behind bursts of light blinking in front of him. He stumbled and fell. His face was forced against the cool floor. His head swam in a murk. Hands subdued him, restrained him then gagged him.
Dazed, he became very aware of a crackling and popping sound from far away. The room above him was bathed blood red. He realized his eyes were closed. He blinked them open. Lethargy and heat bore against his body. His head hurtbadly. He twisted to look toward the door. This caused his head to object furiously and his throat constricted against the cloth which had been shoved into his mouth. With closed eyes, he gritted his teeth and swallowed to settle his stomach. It wouldn't do him any good to vomit. His mouth watered profusely, drenching the gag in his mouth. Once the spasms eased, he cracked an eye open to peer out of his room. Bodies were in the smoke and flames. They seemed like two floating, black apparitions with no arms or legs to speak of; tapered stumps to their appendages. Their grunts and the clash of metal were much more substantial.
Smoke from his hearth, borne in by a breeze, consumed his room in thick, billowing clouds causing his eyes and lungs to burn. He squeezed his eyes against it and felt tears stream down the corners of his eyes. He was heaving for breaths, but his nostrils had become clogged from irritation and it was not enough. With legs kicking and arched back, he fought against the ropes on his wrist and ankles. Like a worm that had just been stepped on by a very large boot, he writhed as if in the throes of death and feeling absurdly helpless. The bindings cut into the thin skin of his wrists, rubbed it raw. Each breath he could take, he sucked in the black smoke. The sounds of flames crackling in his head came through strangely clear. His hands felt swollen and numb. Then he realized, he was suffocating. In good earnest, he doubled his efforts to free his hands. His muffled cries did nothing to ward off death. It came to him softly, gently, pulling his lids to close. To sleep.
He was floating. No, he was being dragged across the floor. His binds were cut, but he lacked the strength to move. His legs were splayed before him and remnants of his straw, pitched roof laid on the floor of his hearth. Amidst them were bodies. Some were contorted in pain, pulled in on itself and frozen in place. Their skins were already blackened by the fire. They had no eyes. He closed his own against the carnage. The roar of flames filled his ears and mind; the heat, his body. For the moment, he thanked De he at least could not smell them.
He coughed listlessly as he was pulled out of his home. It was not yet dawn outside and the stone walls around his home was barely discernible in the dark. What he could see - splotches of finger-grass between pebbles and dirt - rippled like water, but the air was cold, a relief on his hot skin, and it spurred life into his labored breaths. He was hauled to his feet. This abrupt change in position caused the darkness of predawn to turn black around the edges of his vision. His head was incredibly heavy and his arms and legs felt very distant.
"Get up! Move!" A voice shouted, not so distant. The person took off toward a carriage which thundered toward them.
He complied and followed. Groaning and grunting, he got to his feet and took several tentative steps, but his knees folded under him and he landed on a rock sending a jolt of pain up him leg and into his groin. He regained his footing, and dragging his leg behind him, leapt at the carriage. He misjudgedor had lacked the strength and wit to coordinate his jump, but a hand was there. His right shoulder struck the door frame of the swiftly moving carriage with a sickening crunch and his cry caught at his throat. The man who saved him had, at this time, somehow grasped his other arm and began hoisting him in. He felt his legs drag briefly in the road before he was safely resting on the floor of the dim carriage.
He could barely sit erect let alone fight off the hands which jerked at his collar. The owner of those hands had the leather gorget and band of an official. The pin over his right ear which held his turban in check, he could see it quite clearly, had marked him as a Court official. The officer hollered over the noise of the carriage. His breath was hot and foul, but the words did not penetrate the fog in his head. He blinked absently in response.
The ride lurched, and the pounding in his head became unbearable and his stomach turned, but the pain in his shoulder took precedence over them. A wheel struck a rock and the carriage tilted violently. Owen bounced hard against the wooden floor. He cried out and gripped his arm at the elbow close to his body. His stomach retched several times then his body convulsed, further aggravating his shoulder.
A window exploded. Immersed in such misery, he watched on through watering eyes with only slight interest as the curtain was torn away and cold air poured in.
A dark figure stood etched within the window. His skin shone with sweat. The carriage jostled and the door swung open.
The officer who had faltered from the rocking carriage, had by this time, regained his footing, and begun kicking at the dark figure until the door dropped completely from view. "How many were there?" He leaned out.
Owen coughed and shook his head.
"I think that's the last of them." Heaving Owen to his seat, the officer asked, "Are you hurt?"
His bloodied arm throbbed and hung awkwardly at his side, his eyes still burned from the smoke, he smelled of vomit and every fiber in his body threatened to crumble. He shook his head again, unsure if he had meant he understood the state of his body, his understanding in the question or No, he wasn't hurt.
Despite his fatigue and shock, the clear air allowed him to focus, though only sporadically. The officer was clothed in a blue, sleeveless coat. The bands which encircled the pale sleeves of his tunic marked his rank. He finally recognized him. "Ealdwine Belenus." His voice came hoarse and it burned.
The officer nodded, but said nothing.
Owen did not dislike the youngest of the Belenus brood. Neither did he feel any obligations of kindness toward the officer, but at that moment, he felt grateful toward the man. His hand went absently to his wrists where it burned. It was warm under his palm. He leaned his head back, felt his body ease into the seat and diverted his gaze through the missing door. He could not understand all the events of the morning, but he knew someone had wanted him.
They did not want him dead. Why, though? The weight of the question was more than he could work through. Overcome with exhaustion and smoke, he could not gather himself to question where the officer was taking him. Faintly, he realized there was something seriously wrong with his shoulder.
When the rumble of the wheels against the cobbled streets turned to the grind of pebbles and dirt, he was jolted awake. He had marked aches in various parts of his body. The very first was his head, and the sunlight did very little to help it. The throb in his shoulder had significantly lessened though, and he had been laid flat, his arm slung with a blue sash.
"You're awake, then?" Ealdwine said. He sat across from him, elbows on knees and his fingers drooped between his legs. Owen couldn't tell if the eyes which peered at him were of concern or merely sharp interest.
Owen did not reply, seeing as the question was for formalities sake.
"How's the shoulder?" Ealdwine continued.
It was sore. Owen gingerly fingered his arm, but had no intention to answer.
Ealdwine leaned back. "Did you see them?"
Owen sat up and shook his head slowly. "Barely." His voice cracked and so the -ly could barely be heard even to himself. He swallowed, which proved to be a bad idea. "They..." he rasped, coughed, then grimaced. "They...were...mer...cenaries."
Ealdwine nodded. "You're safe now."
"What...did they...want?" He said, forcing the words out.
"It's obvious what they wanted."
"How did...they...find me?"
Ealdwine did not reply. It didn't seem important. Tried as they had, word had gotten to him on how the others had been taken. Ellenor Ari, heiress to the Ari Clan, did not arrive to perform her duties as the Court spinster. When she had been taken, was never determined. Discourse between the Clans rose when word reached Grianainn of her disappearance. Outright war was threatened when Haldor, heir to the throne of the Damh, failed to return home when he had refused the attendance of his appointed officer. To appease the Clans and to regain some of his supporters, Lugus Belenus released the seventh son's child, young Nevin of the western tribe back to his home in Siar. But who ever had been behind the disappearances was not satisfied until all of the children of Grianainn were free from Belenus's hold; to return home. He felt Belenus's grip on him as if he were beside him, solid and choking him.
Owen sighed a ragged breath to assure to himself he was, in fact, not choking. He followed Ealdwine's gaze outward, toward a residence. A spacious cottage amidst a field of wild grass and flowers. He startled and the choking sensation returned. Where ever he had expected to be taken, it was not here. He had imaginedhad hoped he would be taken, in the least, to Kattigara to be with his father and brother.
"You can no longer stay here," Ealdwine said unnecessarily. There seemed to be a smile to his tone and Owen turned to the russet man. Tenseness eased from Ealdwine's eyes and the corners of his lips. The carriage stopped with a shudder. Then with nothing, but frankness, he simply said, "Farewell."
Moments later, Owen found himself standing in the path leading to the house. The covered vestibule to the sweeping cottage wrapped around the entirety of the construct. The clopping hooves and creaking wheels of the departing carriage were barely perceived. A touch came to his arm. He turned to briefly glance at the driver of the carriage who stood at his elbow before he approached the cottage.
Five steps from the vestibule, the driver stopped him with a squeeze at his arm before he proceeded up the steps and inside the residence.
In a short time, two persons re-emerged. One in a wheeled chair and the other stood by the door. The attendant's visage was concealed by a cloth similar to the Sisterhood veil. The person in the chair, draped with a white, stained cloth from head to toe, had one recognizable article. A thick, silver ring was on his boney finger. The image of a lion's head was etched into a white stone set upon the ring. Lugus Belenus.
Trembling and panting as if he had, just moments before, escaped his burning home, Owen went to his knees, the sharp ache of his injured knee caused him to ease himself slightly slower onto his heels before he pressed his unhindered palm into the dirt path. He brought his head down, prostrating himself before a man he neither admired nor respected. It was a gesture he had never performed before.
"Rise and approach." The ragged and feeble words conjured no visceral reaction. "Walk with me."
They proceeded to the rear of the cottage. It was mid-afternoon and the sun was strong and hot. The trees and fields, dotted with the vibrancy and color of early summer, unfurled.
"Do you remember this place?" the covered man asked.
"No," he said automatically.
Belenus laughed. "Ah, of course not. You were, but an infant. Barely two, if I remember correctly. Yes. We were very close. Your father and I. We grew up together and were never separated until we were thirteen. When we reunited many years later, it was as if nothing's changed between us." His gaze was fixed at an object some distance away toward the swaying trees. "You often sat in that field with my children. They loved you as if you were their own." He paused. "Do you remember them?"
Owen denied it with a shake of his head.
"Do you at least recall the legend of Uwe and the Five Prisoners?"
"How could I forget? My father recited the account every chance he had." He had wanted the words to cut, but his voice hissed, weak and thready.
"Do you recall the three states and Uwe's kinsmen who rebelled, allied with the western kingdoms to overturn Uwe's rule?"
"Then you know of what they accused him."
"He took their sons from their families! Were they not in the right for wanting to make their families whole?"
It was then that Belenus withdrew the cloth from his head and face, revealing the sores and blisters of his disease. "Uwe had paid for the price of his indiscretion."
Owen staggered in revulsion at the sight of the ailing, withered man before him, then he felt a distinct sense of satisfied pleasure? Or justice. "You regret your actions after you've been punished by your guiltby the curse of the hostages." He paused to suppress his emotions, but failed and laughed at the waste of it all.
Belenus nodded solemnly at his intended futility and returned his gaze toward the field. He shuddered in the slight breeze and motioned for his attendant who pulled the cloth back over the gaunt man's figure.
"Consider the trees in the forest." Belenus pointed with a thick knuckled finger. "In the dry, hot days of summer, many will wither and die to become kindle. An accidental ember or an unfortunate storm can destroy the entire forest." His lids dropped slightly closed to observed his hands. "Without the flames and destruction, there will be no rebirth."
His headache crept back into his temples as he tried to follow the old man's words. He looked toward the gaunt figure below him and considered instead if the man's senility had finally taken over the poor bastard's mind.
"All things have been considered. All has been accounted for. From the ashes of death, hope and promise will rise."
From the front door emerged a Kattigarian soldier. In his hand was a slender, black scabbard. From behind him, a girl shuffled toward them. Her long, dark hair swayed below her porcelain face. Her eyes, one dark and the other was drained of color.
"The witch." He regretted uttering, just as the words dropped from his lips.
She neither spoke against, nor reacted to his accusatory label. Her dark eye simply stared defiantly at him. In her grasp was a walking stick. She leaned her weight onto it with each step.
The soldier's regalia which hid his identity fluttered in the swiftness of his steps. He stopped before him.
"Will we take their freedom away, again?" the Chief asked.
The witch replied, "To choose life is to fall victim to its fate."
Owen withdrew from the Chief and retreated a step. The heat of the day was suddenly too heavy.
The soldier partially unsheathed the blade and twisted the blade in a ceremonial revelation of its creator. The blade caught the midday light and like all the weapons made by the Kattigarians, it was distinguishable by the pattern created by the hardening process and enhanced by the polishing procedure. The pattern in the blade before him was smooth and undulating, like the waves of calm water. Made from the seven layers method, it was one of ten high quality blades made in Kattigara and owned only by the high lords of Kattigara. "Do you know this blade, niwan?"
He had not been called niwan since he became an apprentice four years ago. It had been a term of endearment, one his father briefly uttered to him some years past. Owen pressed his lips to a thin line. Had they meant to dispose of him? Surely not. Why save him from the fire only to be cut down by a Kattigarian soldier? "The Named Sword," Owen replied.
"Rebirth can only come from destruction," Belenus said looking at the soldier as if to encourage him.
The man eyed him steadfast. It struck him at that instant, he recognized those eyes! Owen drew a breath to speak, but the soldier stepped toward him without hesitation and slashed deep the Named Sword.