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. There were others. He could plainly see their mismatch cloth and hair, twined like serpents under thick turbans. Another stepped forward, a bag in hand.
Owen 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 room.
Flames consumed his home beyond frame of the door. Bodies were entangled in melee. Bursts of light, and he stumbled and fell. The heaviness returned to the middle of his back and he was forced against the cool floor. His head swam in a murk aware of only the incredible movement about him, and of a crackling and popping sound from far away. Lethargy and heat bore against his body. 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 gingerly to settle his stomach. It wouldn't do him any good to vomit. His mouth watered profusely, drenching the gag in his mouth.
With the passing of the spasms, he cracked an eye open. Amidst the smoke and flames were 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. He was heaving for breaths, but it was not enough. Panic overtook his mind. With legs kicking and an 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 feeling absurdly helpless. The bindings rubbed raw the thin flesh of his wrists. The sounds of flames crackling in his head came through strangely clear. His hands felt swollen and numb. 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. Among them were bodies, blackened by the fire. Some were contorted in pain, pulled in on itself and frozen in place. The roar of flames filled his ears and mind; the heat, his body.
He coughed listlessly as he was pulled out of his home. It was not yet dawn, and the stone walls around his home was barely discernible from the sky. What he could see - splotches of finger-grass between pebbles and dirt - rippled like water. 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!" A voice shouted, not so distant. The person took off toward a carriage which thundered toward them.
He complied. 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 misjudged—or 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 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.
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 as he attempted to sit up.
"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 and every fiber in his body threatened to crumble. He shook his head again.
Despite his fatigue, 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. Owen finally recognized him. "Ealdwine Belenus." His voice came hoarse and raw.
The officer nodded, but said nothing.
Owen did not dislike the youngest of the Belenus brood. Neither had 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.
The weight of the questions which flitted through him were 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. His arm was held in place by a blue sash.
"You're awake, then?" Ealdwine said. He sat across from him, elbows on knees. Owen could not determine 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.
Ealdwine leaned back then. "Did you see them?"
Owen sat up and shook his head slowly. "Barely." His voice faltered and so the -ly could barely be heard even to himself. He swallowed, but his mouth was parched. "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.
Ealdwine did not reply.
"How did...they...find me?"
Moons ago, 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 the western lands 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. And now, Owen 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.
"You can no longer stay," 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. 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.