Bace woke suddenly and swatted away the hands that grabbed at him. They had been sailing for just over a week and he was slowly losing all his clothing. The big man tugged at his tunic but eventually had to wrestle the weak man to the ground before tugging it off. Then he ripped off each of Bace’s boots and stomped up the stairs. Bace glared as the cool air met his skin. He quickly covered the scar with his hand.
“If someone sees this scar I’ll be dead meat.” He shivered and glanced down at the many bruises collecting on his body. He was able to move more freely now but still felt a dull pain every time he breathed. His head never stopped throbbing.
“I just hope they don’t take my pants.” Bace mumbled to Cob. “They even have my socks.” He said down to his feet. He sat for another minute before standing and exercising his diminishing body until he had to lie down. Late that night Bace felt an odd sensation pass through him. He sat up and looked around. Cob sat up too.
“We’ve stopped.” Cob whispered only moments before the entire crew started bellowing at each other from above. Bace couldn’t understand what they were saying.
“How could we have stopped?” Bace asked.
“The wind. It’s gone.” Cob muttered with wide eyes. Bace crawled to the front of his cell and pressed his face to the bars so he could see out the hatch above.
“If we have no wind how do we move?” Bace asked. Cob sat quietly and stroked his bird.
“We don’t.” He said, looking up. The door above suddenly slammed shut and the room was flooded with darkness. Bace listened to the heavy footsteps above until his body finally shut down and he slept till morning. He woke stiffly and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The air was heavy and the ship seemed to have stopped rocking. Bace had never heard the beast so quiet. Not a square inch of her was creaking. Eventually the sun broke through the cracks in the floor boards above. Bace sat down again and breathed in the heavy scent of the sea water and filthy chickens. He wasn’t visited during the day. No food or water was brought to them so he eventually crawled over to the chickens and stole one of their eggs. Last time he had done this he had been landed with a black eye. He could still only see out of one eye but the nourishment was always worth the risk. He cracked it open and quickly held it over his mouth. Thankfully they slid down easily as Bace could hardly stand the taste of them cooked, never mind raw. He quickly crushed the shell and then hid it underneath the straw piled in the corner of his cell.
Bace wasn’t visited for the next three days. Egg thieving had become a necessity as the threat of dehydration threatened to take him. He had given up talking as the motion seemed to split his lip open but he could now see out of both eyes. The room grew hotter every day. He had been watching Cob happily play with his bird when he suddenly sat up. Cob stopped what he was doing and looked over as the man pulled himself slowly to his feet. Bace painfully inched closer to the door and tested out his voice.
“Let’s see how this goes.” He said quietly to Cob. “Hey! Heeeey!” He started yelling and rattling his cell bars. The deck was quiet above so he had no doubt that someone would eventually hear him. Each time he spoke he felt the power returning to his voice. The momentary rush of this power turned his simple words into as many insults he could think up. Apparently one in particular got to one of them. The hatch above suddenly flew open and Bace stopped. The weary man with sweat running down his face sucked back a skin of water as he stumbled down the stairs. Bace waited with his feet apart until the man stood a foot from the bars. Then, with reflexes as quick as he could muster, Bace lunged and grabbed the man’s shirt and slammed him forward against the bars. Bace heard his skull crack and then dropped the body as it crumpled to the floor. Cob leaned forward and watched as Bace grabbed the skin off of the ground and then sat at the opposite end of his cell. He sipped the water until night fell with a gleam in his eyes as he watched the man on the ground like it was the greatest entertainment he had ever witnessed. The big man stirred when the moon reached with her glow into the dark room. Bace set the empty skin of water beside him and then returned to the opposite end of his cell. The man grabbed the empty skin and then slowly stumbled to his feet. He looked at the skin, then at Bace, then back at the skin. He touched his forehead which had long stopped bleeding then ran up the stairs yelling something Bace was glad he couldn’t understand. He glanced over at Cob who grinned back him.
The following morning Bace was dragged to the deck above and was forced to kneel before the Captain. The man seemed to shine in the sun. An oily substance covered his hair and dimpled face. His cheeks were flushed and Bace could smell the alcohol on his breath as he drew close. His dark eyes seemed to dart around like a nervous sparrow. Bace tried to stand but was pushed down. His knees crashed into the boards and soon the deck was stained with his blood. He clenched his jaw to keep from crying out but tears welled in his eyes. He kept his eye on the deck, refusing to look at the oily face again as a wave of nausea hit him.
“I hear you’ve had your fair share of water, hey boy?” The crew gathered around. “Made a fool out of poor Mr. Kenni.” The Captain spat. Bace focused on breathing, tried to ignore the gurgle in the man’s voice as he spoke, giving the impression that he had a pool of blood waiting at the back of his throat. The sun that beat down on him only amplified the sick feeling in his gut. He had just risked his life to rehydrate his body. He was not going to lose that now. He breathed again and focused on shutting the smell of the crew around him out. He felt his stomach settle slightly.
“Oi!” One of the men suddenly twisted his arm and bent him over at the waist. Bace gritted his teeth. “He’s got the Ender’s Mark.” The man grinned.
“Stick em’!” Another man yelled but the Captain stepped forward and scanned the scar on Bace’s shoulder. The sailor drew his dagger but the Captain grabbed his wrist. The sailors grew quiet and shuffled anxiously. The big man let the silence linger, seeming to enjoy the tension he could create. He ran his finger slowly along the scar.
“Tell me, boy. Do you know how much a young man will go for at a slave auction?” He grinned deviously. The crew chanted their agreement. Bace looked away and tried to pull free. The sailor held him tight. “Let him go.” The Captain stepped away as the sailor released him but threw him to the floor.
“Put him to work?” The man asked. The Captain looked around with his hands clasped confidently behind his back. He grinned, enjoying the silence again.
“Put him to work!” He suddenly yelled and the crowd cheered with him. Bace was pulled to his feet suddenly and dragged across the deck. A pair of hands that he didn’t recognize threw him more gently to the ground.
“Keep your head down and you’ll get to Daine alive.” The young man whispered. Bace glanced over and eyed the young face of the weary Dainer.
“Are you real?” Bace asked. The young man gave him a strange look but then put him to work. Bace was forced to scrub the deck on his hands and knees until his palms were bleeding. He had to keep an eye on the floor behind him as his knees seemed to continue bleeding since their initial meeting with the deck. Occasionally he would have to turn back and scrub his own blood from the deck. Five days later the young man returned as he always did every day with a meal and water but this time with a small gold coin as well. He slid it into Bace’s hand.
“I do not know what fortunes lay before you but perhaps this will serve you well someday. We are not all enemies.” He said before taking away the half-eaten bowl of mush and the skin of water. Bace continued his work for another three days. He was never alone as the crew, who had nothing to do, seemed to sprawl about the deck during the day trying to stay cool. The dirty water Bace was rubbing into the deck burned the soars on his hands but it was a pain long forgotten. The young man returned again at the same time on their eleventh day without wind.
“I’m sorry, our rations are running low. I have nothing to bring you today but half of my portion.” He dug a broken biscuit from his pocket but Bace pushed it back.
“No, it’s yours. You eat it.” Bace had suspected as much. They hadn’t planned for an extra week at sea and lately his rations had been growing smaller.
“Please, it’s the best I can do for you.” The young man held it out again. Bace hesitated but then took the bread.
“What’s your name?” Bace asked.
“Hanifas.” The man whispered but then disappeared again. Bace ate what he had and then shakily sipped the scummy water from the bucket. He dipped his brush in after drinking and then continued scrubbing. Other than the soft scratching of his brush the ship had grown quiet that day. Not a sound was heard. Bace was so focused on staying awake that he was the first to hear a strange noise. He stopped to listen but immediately fell under the glare of one of the crew members. He scrubbed again, leaving longer moments of silence in between. The soft sound seemed to be growing louder. He stopped again, this time ignoring the glare of the men around him, and stood. One of the men pointed to the floor and yelled something at him but Bace was too focused on the horizon and the sound. It took another minute for him to realize what he was hearing. He turned to the man still yelling at him and pointed towards the sound.
“Wind!” He yelled as loud as he could. The crew all startled at his voice and looked to where he was pointing. Slowly they all joined him at the starboard side. The deck grew quiet again as they listened. The ship creaked suddenly below them and a sail rustled above. The moment the wind hit them Bace was thrown in his cell. It didn’t take long for the ship to come alive again. Bace remained where he was thrown and glanced over at Cob. Through the next two weeks the young man named Hanifas took over the duty of caring for their prisoner.
“How old are you?” Bace asked when Hanifas returned with a small meal.
“Eight-teen.” He said and then passed an egg through the bars as he collected the rest. He suddenly dug a shirt from his pocket.
“The Captain wants you to put this on to hide the scar.” He said quietly. Bace threw it on.
“What’s it mean? The scar.” He asked.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Can you tell me how much longer?”
“What do you mean?” Hanifas asked.
“Until we get to where we’re going?” He asked.
“One more week.” He replied and then ran up the stairs. By the end of the week the sun burns on Bace’s back had started peeling. His ribs were showing and small soars were starting to appear throughout his body. Early one morning Hanifas came bounding down the stairs holding a full skin of water and a large meal. Bace took it greedily. When he finished, the young man took the bowl and started for the stairs.
“Aren’t you going to take the skin?” Bace asked. Hanifas glanced back and grinned before disappearing on the deck above. Bace sipped the water throughout the morning and finished it by early afternoon. As he took the last sip a loud bell suddenly sounded. He sat up and glanced through the door above. Cob crawled over too.
“I think we’ve reach port.” He said. Bace looked over and spotted the bird sitting on the man’s big shoulder.
“Why do you have a bird anyway?” He asked.
“Because I like birds. Why else would someone have one?” The man answered. It took another hour before Bace was dragged up and then pulled down the gangway. He stepped onto dry land for the first time in a month and nearly fell over. The earth felt so still. The man dragging him laughed as he straightened the weary prisoner. He was dragged down to the stocks, strapped in, and then left alone. Cob joined him and sat on the cobblestone below. By late evening the docks had grown quiet. Cob had started humming a quiet tune to distract Bace from the situation but suddenly found out that it had been doing quite the opposite.
“Okay, I give up. What are you humming? Is it something my mother used to sing?” He asked.
“No.” Cob said and looked over at Bace.
“Well then what is it?” He asked.
“I don’t know. I was making it up.” He replied. Bace sighed. It felt like days before the sun rose again. Each time Bace’s legs would give out beneath him his throat would slam into the wooden brace around his neck. He tightened his hands into fists and then released them, trying to increase the movement in his fingers. Shortly after the sun had painted the stones below with a bright orange Bace heard two men approach him from behind. He heard the hiss of leather and then felt the sting of a long whip strike his back. His legs gave out below him with shock and his throat slammed into the wood again. He quickly pushed himself up but then felt the whip come down again. He held his jaw firmly and locked his legs in place. Cob looked away as Bace felt the bite of the whip a dozen more times. He felt warm blood run down to his belly. Finally the whipping stopped and Bace opened his eyes as the stocks were opened and he could finally stand straight. The two men grabbed him and pulled him down the street. His vision was swimming but he was faintly aware of being pulled into an empty building with a lone chair sitting in the middle. The men threw him forward and he felt his knees open again. When his vision finally cleared, he became aware a well-dressed man sitting in the chair. He forced himself up and stood with his feet apart to steady himself.
“Very noble.” The voice cooed. It was a gentle voice, almost encouraging. Bace was suddenly beginning to miss his chickens. “You are standing firm for your country. Well, no need for that anymore. You belong to us now.” The man watched as Bace spat towards him.
“I belong to no one.” He hissed. The man crossed his legs and rested his elbows on the armrests. He laughed and then looked at his men still standing on either side of Bace. Suddenly the man grew serious, his shoulders dropping as he leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees.
“The Academy of Gail. That’s where I studied. Very nice people.” Bace brought his gaze up to the man. The man smiled and leaned further so Bace could see him in a shaft of light coming from a hole in the ceiling. He breathed in the dust illuminated in the beam and enjoyed the recognition that lit up Bace’s eyes.
“Willik?” He asked quietly. The man leaned back and laughed.
“There he is; my old boy. You were – what? Thirteen when I graduated? I would even dare to say that you looked up to me. You made me feel so good about myself. I even considered giving it up. Betraying you, I mean. I don’t see the same young innocence in your eyes now though. You always were troubled. Sometimes I even thought that you’d figured me out. But then there was always such hope in those young eyes. It’s a shame you had to grow up. You would have done anything for me in those days.” Bace stepped forward but felt the guards pull him back.
“We were brothers and you left me.” Bace could feel a sliver of pain leaking into the words. Willik stood and walked forward so he was only a foot from Bace.
“Yes. We were.” Bace thought he saw a cold compassion in the man’s eyes. It flickered and then died.
“Send him to Morac’s farm.” Willik chanted without breaking his gaze. Finally, he turned and four hands wrapped around Bace’s arms. Their fingers dug in painfully as Bace was dragged outside. He was thrown backwards into a cart of bars drawn by a team of oxen. The two men spoke briefly to the driver and then stepped back. He glared as the cart pulled him away but then sat down. He moved away from the bars as they brushed against his back. He winced and reached back. Thick welts had formed; some were still bleeding. He wiped the blood off and tried to warm himself. Bace sat quietly after and watched the passing landscape until they reached a small farmyard. A dog ran up to greet them and ran its nose along every inch of the cart. Bace stepped outside as the driver opened the gate. The moment his feet hit the ground the driver pushed him forward. He fell and landed in a brown puddle. The water splashed and soaked the driver’s feet.
“It seems that your slaves would do best if they simply stayed on the ground.” Bace mumbled up to the man. The driver ignored him.
“Aye Morac!” The man yelled and Bace turned to take in the scene before him. The small house was whitewash stone nestled in a large valley. Small shrubs dotted the landscape but a large square of black marked a field to the north of the house. A few young sheep grazed freely around the yard and a pair of black work horses was tethered to a wagon at the front of the house. A man was pulling their harness free and his wife was in the field when they heard their name called. They both turned to look. The driver walked Bace forward and then pushed him down into the mud before the farmer. The farmer kicked away a curious chicken and then knelt in front of Bace. His dark eyes bore into the young man. Bace looked up and studied the wide face and stalky frame. His dark hair fell in front of his eyes as he leaned forward.
“You speak Daini?” The farmer asked. Bace shivered and then shook his head.
“He can learn.” The driver stated.
“He will learn.” The farmer said and pulled Bace harshly to his feet. He called to his son who ran out of the house and grabbed Bace from his father. The son looked as if he could have been his father twenty years earlier. Bace must have had a look in his eyes because after exchanging glances the son loosened his grip. The farmer saw the exchange and slapped Bace in the head.
“Take him inside.” The farmer told his son. Bace followed and soon after they were joined by the older man. He sighed after looking his slave over and Bace thought he saw a hint of sadness.
“Sit down.” The son said. Bace looked around for a place to sit but didn’t want to drop any mud on their furniture. The farmer glanced out the door as the sound of the cart rumbled down the track and then held out a blanket and pointed to a wooden chair. He sat Bace down and threw the blanket over him.
“Oh, my-” Bace said, trying to keep the blanket off his back.
“Don’t worry about the blood.” The man said and then disappeared out the door. Bace glanced around the room and then at the son.
“I apologize.” The farmer said as he returned with his wife. “If I treated my slaves with compassion in front of the officials and their bees I would not have one. What is your name, son?” He asked. Bace scratched his shoulder and then drew the blanket further around him. He glanced around at the family, confused. “I’m not going to ask again.” He said.
“Bazil.” He replied. The wife appeared suddenly and passed him a bowl of rice and a biscuit. As he ate she gently took away his blanket and checked his wounds. She spoke suddenly to her husband and instructed him to keep an eye on their two daughters outside. The farmer turned to his son and after speaking for a while they disappeared outside together. Bace finished eating and then watched as the son returned with a bucket of water and a rag.
“The water here is not warm.” The mother said to Bace as she soaked the rag. Bace grimaced as she quickly washed the mud away from the wounds on his back with ice-cold water.
“Why doesn’t anyone speak Daini here?” He asked. She chuckled.
“Daini is a dying language. It is rare for even the nobles to know it though it does seem to be growing popular with the officials. You don’t need it to live here but we’ll do our best to teach it to you anyway.” She stood and then instructed him to finish washing outside. He cleaned himself as well as he could and then returned inside. The farmer heard him enter and pointed to a set of clothes on the table.
“Those are for you.” He said. “You can change in there.” He pointed to a room down the hall. Bace did as he was told and changed into a pair of thick brown pants, a light blue tunic and then pulled a leather vest over top. The leather was comforting, reminding him of home.
“My wife is waiting for you in the field.” He heard the farmer say and then the house grew quiet. Bace sat down on the floor and placed his head in his hands. Cob suddenly joined him on the floor.
“This isn’t real. It can’t be.” He mumbled. Cob chuckled and patted the young man on the back.
“Open your eyes, son. These people are living the same lives that your people are. They’re not all your enemy.” He said.
“Our countries have been at peace for nearly a century and it isn’t Dyritica who’s acting out in war. Our countries are very different, Cob.” Bace stood and left the room, leaving Cob to catch up on his own time. Bace stepped out the door saw the farmer’s wife in the field and started towards her. She was a thick boned woman with long dark hair and her eyes were rich like honey. She saw him coming and quickly stood.
“Basilio, you may call me Agata. Those are my two daughters Elisa and Aria.” She pointed further down the field at two small children playing with the soil and occasionally pulling a weed. “You may call my husband Anton and our eldest are called Seve and Joana.” She pointed first to her son and then her eldest daughter. Bace nodded and tried to run the names through his head again.
“Mama!” Agata looked over to where her daughter called out from the house. They exchanged a quick conversation as Agata gathered her skirt in her hands. She turned back to Bace.
“For today, you pull.” She grabbed Bace’s hands and pulled him over. “Pull at the root.” She said and wrapped his hand around a thick weed. He pulled under her instruction and then pulled another so she could see that he understood. They straightened and then she ran her finger down the row and then gestured to each row down the field. “You’ll finish all today.” She said and then ran to meet her daughter at the house. Bace stood for a moment and watched the two young girls playing in the dirt. From what he could tell so far, only the eldest daughter looked anything like their mother. He glanced at the house and then at the two men wrestling a ram to the ground in the field. The dog waited eagerly nearby, no doubt waiting for the ram to escape. One of the young girls glanced up and yelled something at him. He shrugged so she stood and pulled her sister to her feet and dragged her over. Bace waited as they drew near.
“Mulig.” She gestured to the plant at Bace’s feet. Bace knelt down stiffly.
“Mulig?” He asked, now understanding that she was trying to teach him their country’s old language. The girls nodded and giggled. Bace grabbed a handful of soil and held it out. They jumped back and laughed nervously. “No no. What is soil?” He held it out to them and they shook their heads.
“Idege.” One of the girls cupped her hands beneath his so he let the soil run into her palms.
“Idege.” He repeated. The girls giggled again and then pulled a large weed together. There was a sudden earthy snap from below as the roots were left behind. The girls looked at the plant and then at each other and started rapidly arguing with other. After a while Bace finally understood the thick accent and realized that they were each blaming each other for the accident. Bace reached for a small spade lying nearby and gently slid it underneath the roots and pulled them up. The girls stopped arguing and helped pry the roots from the ground.
“See, no problem.” He muttered as they threw the roots away.
“I’m Elisa.” One of the girls grabbed his hand and put it on her head. “Elisa.” She repeated then grabbed his wrist and placed it on her younger sister’s head. “Aria.” She said then brought his hand back to hers. “Elisa, Aria.” She moved his hand to her sister’s head again.
“Elisa, Aria.” He repeated and they both smiled. Aria suddenly stepped forward and turned the corners of Bace’s mouth up. He couldn’t help but smile in return.
“Rozi.” Little Aria said quietly. Elisa, seeing that Bace didn’t understand, placed a finger on his mouth. She forced her smile as big as it could go and then pointed to it.
“Rozi.” She repeated. Bace nodded and played with his own smile. The girls laughed and looked at each. Bace suddenly heard a laugh from behind him. He turned.
“They are saying that you don’t smile enough, Basilio.” Their mother smiled and bent down with him. She pulled up at weed and then yelled at her daughters who ran off when she finished. She grabbed Bace’s hands again and put them on a weed. “Now, you work.” She said firmly and then walked down the field to start working on her own row. Bace crouched and started pulling again. By the time he reached the end of it he was crawling through the soil and Agata had already made it down two rows. He stood and stretched his back but felt himself growing weary. He hadn’t worked this hard for weeks. He pulled at his shirt and felt it peel away from his back. He pulled off the leather and tried to peer over his shoulder. He heard Agata gasp from further down the field. She was by his side and lifting up his shirt in a second.
“Sorry, I did not realize there was more blood. Please-” She pointed to the house. They walked inside together and she sat him down again and helped him pull off his shirt. Her daughter, who was stirring something in a pot over the wood stove, glanced over. Her mom motioned her over. She hesitated but then joined her mother at Bace’s back. They spoke briefly before Joana dug out a needle and thread.
“Some are very deep.” Joana knelt in front of Bace. She threaded the needle and then wound it through the air. “Some need closing.” Bace watched the needle in the air then turned his gaze to Joana who seemed to wilt suddenly. She passed the needle to her mother and then pulled out a small flask. She poured it on the wounds and Bace felt a searing pain spread through his back. He grabbed the chair on either side of him and braced himself as they poured more over his back. They sterilized the needle next and then slowly closed his wounds. When they finished, they cleaned the wounds again and Joana returned with a dark green tunic. He pulled it on and then painfully pulled on the leather. Joana helped with the second arm when she saw him struggling. He thanked her and then walked out to the field again. Agata was already hard at work so he worked with her until the sun set. He was having trouble seeing the weeds in the dark by the time a warm glow started from inside the house and soon they were called in. Bace stood at the door as the family sat down for the meal but noticed an extra chair around the table between the two youngest daughters.
“Sit, Basilio.” Anton gestured him to the empty chair. He walked over carefully and sat between the girls. They grinned up at him. After prayer Bace was free to eat with them. He took little, afraid of what limitations he might disturb, and forced himself to eat slowly. He had just taken in a mouthful of rice when little Aria elbowed him. He looked over and she drew a smile on her face. He forced a smile with his cheeks full of food and received a giggle from the young girl. He turned to his food again, the smile disappearing as Anton addressed him.
“So Basilio, you are from Dyritica, yes?” He asked.
“Yes, Sir.” Bace quickly swallowed and replied.
“You have a family? Wife? Children?” Bace had to think quickly. He still wasn’t sure whether or not to trust the family.
“Um, yes. A wife and a son.” He replied as evenly as possible. Agata looked at her husband across the table sadly.
“A young boy, then?”
“Yes, born just this year.” He replied.
“I see.” The man chewed thoughtfully and nodded his head. Seve suddenly piped up, trying to break the silence.
“Surely, you will eat more than that?” He asked Bace.
“Yes, Basilio, you are free to eat as much as you need.” Agata pushed a few bowls closer to him but Bace refused. After dinner, the family slowly disappeared to their beds and Bace was shown his in the attic.
“It’s a little drafty.” The father said up to him at the bottom of the ladder.
“It’s fine.” Bace said as he peered back over. The man nodded and then tossed up a blanket.
“We don’t have any extra mats so you will have to sleep on the floor.” He said. Bace nodded. “And I will have to lock you in.” Bace nodded again and closed the hatch. He heard the bolt slide into placed and felt an impending darkness swallow him. The air was musty and thick with the smell of mold. The only comfort Bace found that night was his leather vest. He breathed in the familiar scent and longed for the shining eyes of Stephen and the sturdy presence of Kale. He wished his mother would never hear of this for fear of what it might do to her.
“Kale, you know I can’t keep up with your strokes just yet, you have to slow it down.” Stephen said wearily as they stepped apart and lowered their weapons to the ground. Kale scratched the back of his neck and then sat down. He pulled a parchment from his breast pocket and opened it.
“What do you suppose he wanted us to do with it?” Kale asked. Stephen snatched the parchment and glanced down the list of names.
“He told us to keep an eye on them.” Stephen replied.
“Don’t you think there’s something more to it though?” Kale asked. Stephen chuckled.
“Bace is a pretty straight forward guy. I don’t think he ever has underlying messages when he says something.” He tossed the parchment onto the grass and then sprawled onto his back. Kale joined him shortly.
“What are you doing this summer, Phen?” Kale asked quietly as he stuffed the parchment into his pocket.
“I was considering sticking around here. Just in case-” He stopped. Kale looked over.
“Just in case Bace returns.” He finished. Stephen glanced over at his companion.
“I don’t think my parents would like it though.” He looked away.
“I was looking into sticking around too. Maybe you’d want to stay with me.” A sad silence drifted through the grass between them.
“It’s been eight months, you know.” Stephen said.
“Yeah, what about it?” Kale felt a familiar anger burn inside of him.
“Why do you think he did it?” Stephen asked as Kale sat up and jumped to his feet.
“I guess he had more important things to do. Now come on and pick up your sword. You’ll get it yet today; I know you will.”
Bace woke with a start and sat up. He crawled over to the small hole he had cut into the wall to give him some starlight and peered out. He could sense a dozen shadows across the field crawling towards the sheep. He scrambled back over to the hatch and started banging loudly with his fist.
“Anton! It’s the pack! They’re moving in again!” He yelled. He heard thumping from below as the family woke. After another minute the thumps grew louder and he heard the bolt slide away. Bace ripped the hatch open and slid down the ladder. He ran towards the door as he tugged on his leather and then grabbed his staff he had leaned against the house. Anton and Seve were ahead of him, running for the flock. Anton had a staff and torch held before him. The sheep slowly started stirring but stayed behind their masters. Bace took up his position and eyed the dark figures creeping towards them. The girls must have set the dog free. She tore past Bace and went to stand with her master.
“Seve, watch out for the black one. He’s their leader.” Anton said to his son. Bace twirled his staff in his grasp to find its ideal grip. They waited another hour but the pack stayed in the shadows of the swaying grass and eventually left, unwilling to challenge the bite of fire. They stayed out for the rest of the night and kept a wary eye on the horizon. The wolves were spotted once more just before light but then they disappeared into the forest at the other side of the valley. Anton finally stood and motioned his boys inside.
“How did you know they were coming?” Seve asked as they sat at the table for breakfast.
“I don’t know. I must have heard something while I was sleeping.”
“He already has the heart of a Shepherd.” Agata smiled as she scooped a portion of oatmeal into little Aria’s bowl. Later that day Bace found himself alone in the field with the sheep. He had moved them into a different pasture in another valley with Seve and the dog earlier that day and from where he stood he couldn’t even see the house. He glanced around, feeling the temptation once again to flee into the cover of the trees and slowly make his way home. But once again, he found himself glued to his task, unable to break his devotion to the family and the safety of their livelihood. He eventually found a rock to sit on. He crossed his legs and watched as a young lamb slowly wandered over. The dog lay in the grass on the other side of the flock. He dug the gold coin from his pocket and fumbled with it absently. The lamb grabbed his pant-leg and started tugging and chewing at the fabric.
“Little Aria says your name it Bo.” Bace said to the lamb and stuck the coin back in his pocket. “You know, I’m not much into names but-” He stopped as a figure broke from the trees to his left. He squinted and then made out the figure of Joana riding one of the big black’s. She dismounted and then dug out a small meal for him. She smiled and handed him the parcel. He ate quietly and then passed the bowl back to her.
“Do you miss your family?” She asked. Bace quickly worked through a response in his mind before speaking.
“Yes, but they are safe. That’s all that matters.” Bace thought of Stephen and Kale as he responded to make the statement appear more genuine.
“What is your son’s name?” Bace’s mind spun, he hadn’t spoken about his fake family for so long he almost forgot he’d said anything about it.
“Eliot.” He wasn’t sure where he pulled that one from but he locked it away in the file of lies. Joana nodded and then almost painfully asked him what his wife’s name was. Bace hesitated. “Alyson.” He quickly locked that one away too. Joana repeated the name quietly and then left without another word. Bace watched her go and then let out a sigh of relief. Later that afternoon Bace heard a rumbling from behind him. He turned as the wind picked up and dragged a dark cloud into the valley. He whistled for the dog that obediently helped gather the sheep and herd them into the trees as the rain hit. They were all drenched by the time everyone made it under the cover of the leaves. Bace quickly counted the small bodies and then hunkered down as lightning lit the sky. The valley grew darker as the clouds swelled and soon the rain was pelting them through the leaves. The valley grew cold suddenly and Bace realized the clouds would soon be pelting them with ice. He stood and braced himself against the wind, holding his staff in one hand and the other shielding his eyes. He looked around for the dog.
“Lena!” He finally called her name. The sheep were huddling close together as the rain turned to ice. The dog suddenly appeared and barked at him. He couldn’t hear it but he could see her jaws opening and closing. The dog turned and ran a few feet. Bace looked down at the sheep then back at the dog that seemed to be beckoning at him to follow. Bace finally scooped up the youngest lamb and threw it onto his shoulder and held onto its back legs to keep it from falling off. He then drew a few circles in the air which signaled the dog to help gather the herd and they moved in the direction that she led them. The sheep moved reluctantly but after a few encouraging nips they were on their way. Bace tried to see where she was taking them. He only realized that she had no specific destination when the rain became less suddenly. He looked up and realized that the further in they went the denser the foliage was above. After a few more minutes of tripping over the shrubs below Bace lowered the lamb to the ground and they continued a few more feet. They finally stopped and Bace listened to the rustling trees above him. He called the dog over and she gladly rolled over so he could scratch her belly. Later that evening the storm finally passed but by the time they escaped the trees the sky was already growing dark. Bace was counting the sheep again when Seve crashed through the bushes. The horse beneath him snorted and tossed its head as the dog shook her tail. Seve dismounted but didn’t wait for Bace to finish counting.
“We were so worried.” Seve said. “I’m glad to see you’re okay.” Bace allowed a smile.
“Well, your dog led us to a safer place.” Bace shivered as Seve bent down and rubbed the dogs face.
“Good girl.” He said and then stood. Seve looked back the way he had come and then at Bace.
“The crops.” Bace suddenly said wide eyed.
“Yeah, well, mum doesn’t think we lost too much. We should be able to pull through with what we have left as long as we don’t get another storm like that.” Bace listened intently, trying to learn as much as he could.
“Good.” He said quietly.
“Well, let’s get the sheep in.” Seve said down to the dog. “Let’s take em’ home.” He drew a few circles in the air and then threw his hand forward. The dog barked in response and started herding the sheep home. They reached the house long after dark. After making it through the trees again Seve rode ahead to tell his parents that everything was fine, leaving Bace to walk with the sheep under the stars. As they pulled in Bace walked to the rain barrel at the back of the house and quickly washed. Elisa heard him from inside and ran around to the back to greet him.
“How are the little one’s today?” She bounced to keep up with him.
“Well, they’re still sulking because of the name’s you chose for them.” He joked. Elisa punched him playfully and then raced ahead of him into the house. Bace grinned and followed her inside. Supper had already been cleaned up but a plate was left out for him. Agata was placing another log into the fire. She turned when she heard him enter.
“Oh Basilio, please eat, you must be starving.” She said and pointed to the plate on the table. Agata sat down across from him and pulled out a book Bace had been recording translations in. She wrote down a few words and then looked up at him. He repeated them back to her between mouthfuls and she slowly corrected his pronunciation. She passed the book to him. He finished his supper as she wrote down a few more words he didn’t know and they slowly figured more translations out after eating. Soon the house was quiet and Agata stood. Bace stood with her and they walked to the hallway. Bace pulled the ladder down and climbed to his room. He closed the hatch and heard the bolt slide into place. The family had since gathered a mat for him but couldn’t afford a pillow. He found it quickly and pulled the blanket around him thinking once more of Kale and Stephen and hoping with all his being that they were staying far from danger.
Kale folded the list again and stuck it back in his pocket. He eyed a few of the boys on the list and then walked out of the lunch room. Stephen was close behind him. They walked quickly to the stables and saddled.
“Kale, it’s Sunday. Do we really have to do this today?” He whined.
“Stephen, Bace has been gone for nearly ten months now and then suddenly some dead guy shows up with his name on his hand? We have to find out why.” He replied as he tightened the cinch.
“He’s dead, Kale. How do get an answer from a dead guy?” Stephen asked as he mounted.
“You don’t.” Kale quickly mounted.
“Kale, would you explain to me what you’re thinking.” Stephen said. Kale stopped and turned his horse around.
“The guy was dragged through the city on a rider-less horse. That horse is being held at the City Stable as there has obviously been no owner willing to step up and claim it.”
“So?” Stephen asked.
“So, where do horses go when they’re set free?” Kale asked. Stephen’s eyes grew wide.
“You’re going to steal a horse?” Stephen exclaimed as they started forward.
“No, we’re going to return a horse to its owner.” Kale replied.
“That’s nuts! If we get caught stealing a horse from city officials we’ll be suspended! Forever!” Stephen threw his hands in the air.
“I guess we better not get caught then.” Kale replied as he led them into the city. When they reached the inner-city stables, Kale sent Stephen in with the first task. He walked timidly into the barn but then spotted the Stablemaster coming towards him. Much was rumored about the sharp nosed Stablemaster and Stephen figured he knew just the way to get the information he needed if the rumors held true. He changed his tune and leaned nonchalantly on a stable door.
“So I hear you house some pretty fancy beasts in here.” Stephen intoned quietly. The tall man with an impossibly straight back and thick legs grinned and his eyes flashed.
“Who’s asking?” The man inquired.
“A future customer.” Stephen knew only the finest horses were housed in the City stables and occasionally the ownerless horse found dragging a body through the streets.
“Oh?” The man asked.
“Persuade me.” Stephen proposed. The man’s eyes flickered and he quickly opened up the way for Stephen to enter.
“Only the finest breeds and employees are subject to the rights of being under this roof, Mister?” Stephen had already stopped listening, breaking character. The man eyed him suspiciously.
“Mr. Collins.” Stephen replied with such an irrefutable air that all suspicions were immediately dropped. Stephen was even surprised but continued with his hands clasped behind his back and his chin held high. The man continued speaking but Stephen blocked it out, trying to pick out the likely body-dragging candidate. He tuned in to what the man was saying just in time.
“-because it is likely that you are here to represent your father?” He asked. Stephen looked over.
“Yes, of course.” He replied as if the man was absurd for thinking there was any other possible answer. Stephen suddenly realized they had been standing in front of a stall for a moment too long so he continued walking. Kale was watching from somewhere and had given Stephen strict instructions to stop in front of the stall that housed the horse they were looking for and then he was to scratch the back of his neck so Kale could be sure. Stephen suddenly spotted a not-so-nice looking horse. He wandered slowly over with the Stablemaster and pointed out the animal to him.
“And this creature, will it be staying long?” Stephen asked with as much disgust he figured should be present in his voice and face at the time.
“Ah, yes. This poor animal will be moving along soon. He was found ambling alone in the forest but he’ll be washed and then brought away to auction later this week.” Stephen felt panic rise inside him as he suddenly realized he had nervously started scratching his neck. He lowered his hand, losing his character again.
“Is everything alright, Mr. Collins?” The tall man asked. Stephen glanced around and then bolted from the building. He checked their horses but Kale was nowhere in sight. Stephen glanced around and helplessly grasped his head between his hands.
“Think like Kale, think like Kale. What would Kale do?” He muttered to himself. Stephen paced frantically, unsure of which way to go. “Think like Kale, think like Kale.” He continued muttering. “Think- tack room. Tack room!” Stephen suddenly remembered Kale saying something about the tack room. He sprinted around to the other side of the building and ran up to the small shed. He tried the door but it was locked, he knocked frantically.
“Kale? Oh, dear lord. Kale, please tell me you’re in there.” Stephen glanced nervously behind him. The door flew open and Stephen jumped back. Kale stepped out, buttoning up a stable-hand uniform. He closed the door behind him but Stephen could see the poor Tackmaster lying on the floor; blindfolded and bound at the wrists, ankles, and mouth. “Kale!” Stephen exclaimed.
“Don’t worry, I saw your signal.” Kale said as he pushed past and started down the stairs.
“No, no, no. Kale, I panicked. That was not the horse.” Stephen exclaimed. Kale spun around.
“I’m sorry.” Stephen pleaded but Kale was already up the stairs and in the tack room before Stephen could finish. He followed Kale inside and locked the door behind him. Kale knelt down and whispered something dangerous to the man with a knife to his throat. The man hadn’t even seen his captor yet. Kale had managed to come at him from behind and bind his mouth and eyes before he could do anything. Stephen leaned closer.
“Now, I’m going to take this binding off your mouth and you’re going to tell me which horse belongs to the dead man that was dragged through the city. Do you understand?” Kale whispered. The man nodded and flinched as Kale pressed the point of his dagger a little harder into the man’s skin. Kale pulled it off and the man swallowed and licked his lips.
“Stall thirty-two. A big white mare.” He said. Kale quickly pulled the cloth around his mouth and tied it tightly at the back. He stood and Stephen followed him out.
“Kale.” Stephen called out. Kale turned but continued walking backwards. “Your uniform is too tight. You’ll make me sick.” Stephen grimaced as Kale grinned and walked into the barn. Stephen quickly returned to the tack room and gathered Kale’s clothing then returned to the back door. Kale was out a second later leading a white mare.
“They didn’t even ask any questions.” Kale said as they ran down the street.
“Oh man, people are looking, Kale. Your uniform is too tight.” Stephen said, looking away. Kale looked down at the uniform as a button popped off and then turned down a back alley. Stephen followed as Kale started pulling off the uniform. He collected the clothing in his arms and then turned as Kale quickly changed. The horse nosed him excitedly and glanced back down the alley. Stephen turned when he heard the splash of water as Kale leaned over a water barrel and threw water on his face. He watched his companion closely. Kale was shaking. He leaned on the barrel to steady himself then threw more water at his face. He forced his breathing to even out and then straightened.
“Sorry, Stephen. Guess I don’t have nerves like Bace.” He said quietly as they returned to the street.
“Why don’t you go get our horses? I’ll meet you in front of the brewery.” Stephen decided, realizing that Kale was still trying to steady himself and was no longer thinking about moving forward with their plan. Kale nodded distractedly and ran off. Stephen watched him go and then pulled the horse forward. After hiking through the crowds to the brewery Stephen checked the horse over to make sure it didn’t have some sort of clue leading to the owner. He checked every inch of her to pass the time but there was still no sign of Kale.
“Well.” Stephen finally said. “Looks like you’re just a horse.” He said up to the brown eyes. He glanced around the streets again, looking for Kale but instead noticed a pair of dark eyes watching him from a balcony above. He looked away as if nothing unfriendly had happened and then jumped as a hand grabbed his shoulder. He spun but relaxed as Kale released his grip.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to take so long.”
“Did you have to come at me from behind?” Stephen exclaimed.
“Like I said, sorry.” Kale glanced around nervously.
“Whatever. What’s next?” Stephen asked.
“We’re going to wait around till dark and then we’re going to set her free.”