“No, no. That’s called robbery, Sir. One pound of wool is worth at least twelve ounces of seed. You can’t-”
“Now you listen to me. One pound of wool to one ounce of seed will kill us. You need to make a living; I need to make a living. So, one pound to ten ounces.” Bace argued, looking the man in the eyes. The man was flustered, his face flushed. He grumbled.
“One to six.”
“One to seven. Final offer.” Bace watched the man closely. The man played with the wool in his hands and studied its quality.
“Deal.” He finally stuck out his hand. Bace shook it and forced the friendliest smile he could. He turned and collected the wool from his cart. The man had asked for four pounds. Bace had five left in his cart. He quickly turned. The man stepped back, seeing the look in his eyes.
“I’ll lower it one to six if you take five pounds.” Bace tempted. The man eyed Bace and then glanced at the wool.
“Deal.” They exchanged wool for cucumber seed and then separated. Bace pulled his small cart along and moved down the street, passing Seve who was busy with another customer buying his last few pounds of wool.
“No, Sir. We agreed on a coarse wool last spring.” Bace heard him say. He continued down the street and eventually found the road leading home. Their big black drafts were waiting. Bace strapped the small cart to the saddle and then mounted just as Seve ran up pulling his own cart.
“Little trouble with that last one, hey?” Bace asked. Seve glanced up as he strapped on his own cart and mounted.
“He’s always a bit of trouble.” Seve grinned. They rode quietly home and entered the house as supper was being put out. The living room was still being taken up by wool.
“Five hundred pounds of wool, three months of sorting coarse from fine. So, what did we earn from it today?” Agata smiled at the entering men.
“Enough.” Seve smiled and wrapped his arm around her and kissed her on the forehead. Rosa, Seve’s fiancée, smiled at him as they sat down. Later that evening Anton found Bace leaning against the front of the house weaving a basket. He sat down beside his slave and pulled his pipe out, letting a puff of smoke fill the air. Bace continued his work.
“You don’t have to look twice to tell that you’re bored, son.” Bace stopped and held the weave in placed. He looked up at his master. Then back down at his work.
“I’ve had more exciting years.” He replied casually.
“Won’t be long ’fore Seve is off and married.” He mumbled and stuck his pipe back in his mouth.
“Yes, Sir.” Bace replied. Anton glanced over.
“I’ll be needing someone to take over his duties.” Anton smiled as Bace fumbled with his weave. The young man stopped and looked up again.
“Yes, Sir.” He replied carefully.
“Basilio, I want to put you in charge of managing our livestock when Seve is gone. The sheep, chickens, horses, goat, and cow.” He smiled again as Bace’s eyes widened. “And the dog. You’ll also continue your Daini studies with my wife. You’ve become quite fluent in it.”
“Yes, uh, Sir. Thank you.”
“Good.” The man leaned his head against the house and closed his eyes. Bace leaned back with him and then slowly turned to his weaving. The following day Bace sat with the flock in the valley as he always did. Seve was helping in the field but Bace had rode little Aria out to join him. She insisted on keeping him company at least once a week. He was trying to help her weave a few flowers into a grass crown she had made when movement in the trees flashed in the corner of his eye. The dog stood suddenly, her hackles raised and her lips peeled back in a snarl.
Bace rose and spun as a big black wolf sprung from the grass only a few feet from him. Lena was suddenly in the air and the two dogs collided. Bace watched as they scraped and then drew away from each other. He looked away, spotting at least a dozen other bodies running towards them. The horse threw back its head and sprinted for the house.
“Aria, go stand with the sheep.” He pushed her towards the sheep and she inserted herself within the flock. The bigger ones closed around her and pushed her further in to stand with the lambs. Bace heard a motion to his left. He spun and swept his staff threw the air. He felt it collide and heard the wolf whimper as it slunk away. A sheep cried out but Lena was over in a second and had the wolf’s throat in her jaws. She disappeared as another wolf jumped on top of her. Bace ran forward and swung his staff again. He heard another sheep cry out but Lena managed to jump free. She was at the next wolf in a matter of seconds. The sheep pulled free and ran for the flock. Bace ran for another wolf but felt a heavy weight of fur and teeth crash into him. They fell to the ground and suddenly heard Aria scream. He quickly grabbed a rock and smashed it against the wolf on top of him. He stood and watched in horror as the sheep scattered. The pack had split in two groups, each taking down their own sheep. They dragged off their meals under the spiteful gaze of both Lena and Bace. Bace crouched, breathing hard and listening to the sobbing of Aria. He looked up and wiped blood from his cheek.
“Aria.” He called. “Aria, come here.” The young girl ran forward and slammed into Bace. He put a hand on the ground behind them so they wouldn’t topple backwards and then wrapped his other arm around her. “Lena.” He called the dog over. She slunk over with her tail between her legs and her nose to the ground. Bace looked her over but couldn’t find any major wounds. “Aren’t you a wonder.” He said to her. She flattened her ears and whimpered. “Good girl.” He whispered and watched as her tail wagged slightly. Bace stood with Aria still wrapped around his neck and glanced around at the sheep scattered through the valley.
“Let’s bring em’ home, Lena.” He said and she sprinted away. He spun as he suddenly heard hoof beats thundering up behind them. Seve pulled his mount to a halt and looked around, then at the blood on Bace’s clothes and face. Aria turned and reached up. He pulled her on in front of him.
“What happened?” He asked. Bace wiped away more blood running down his cheek.
“How many did we lose?” He grunted as his horse bounced nervously.
“Two.” Bace looked down and readjusted his grip.
That night as Bace lay in bed trying to keep anything from touching the wound on his shoulder and arm he couldn’t help but feel a deep disappointment in himself. He had been assured and reassured throughout the evening that it was impossible for one man and a dog to fight off a dozen wolves but he still felt like he had let them down. They had lost their only ram and one of their best ewes. He rolled to his good side and gently touched the mark on his cheek to check for more blood. His fingers came away clean so he ran them along the hard scab. He sat up when he heard the bolt quietly slide open. The hatch was pushed up and Bace watched as Joana crawled up. She closed the hatch behind her and then turned to him.
“Joana, what are you doing here?” He whispered. She crawled closer, pulling her skirt up so she wouldn’t step on it. Her skin shone a pale blue in the moonlight and her eyes searched him deeper than he ever thought possible. Bace felt himself falter for a moment as she sat quietly beside him. She leaned in and placed a hand on his cheek. Bace pushed it away.
“Don’t you miss this?” She asked quietly. Her voice was smooth and low. It drifted through the room like a ship on a sea of glass. She reached for him again, leaned closer. Bace fought the urge to give in and pushed her away.
“No, Joana.” Bace could feel his heart racing. He could smell her sweet perfume mixed with her damp hair. She leaned closer again, noticing him falter, and placed her lips on his. Bace felt fire spread through him. His heart stopped and a voice inside his head yelled countless accusations that filled his ears and made his head feel twice as large. He felt his emotions stop suddenly and a strict obedience and honor replaced it. He pushed her away again and rose to his knees. She watched him with the most innocent and pleading eyes Bace had ever seen.
“No, Joana.” He repeated, this time without faltering. “You can do so much better.” He whispered quietly. Her eyes flashed and she lunged for the hatch. She fled down the ladder and disappeared from sight. Bace looked out his window sadly and then at the open hatch. The tail end of the obedience and honor flooded him once more and he crawled to the hatch. He started closing it but his master appeared at the bottom. Bace grabbed his tunic and crawled down. He found his master outside. The man watched the dark horizon sadly. Bace waited in silence.
“There are a number of men, if not all, who would have immediately taken advantage of my daughter, Basilio.” He said with tears in his eyes. Bace waited in the dining room with his master until morning. At dawn he was thrown into a wagon of bars. All but Joana watched him disappear. Bace waved once more and smiled at little Aria and Elisa before turning to watch the road ahead of him. Cob suddenly appeared.
“Haven’t seen you in a while.” Bace mumbled. Cob eyed the trees as they passed by in silence.
“Won’t likely have another master like that.” Cob muttered and threw away a piece of straw he had been chewing on. Bace folded his hands behind his head and leaned back, watching Cob carefully. He leaned forward as he felt the wounds on his shoulder again and crossed his legs.
“Guess it’s for the better. I don’t think I could have ever left that family feeling good about myself. Too involved.” He said quietly. The cart driver glanced back and snarled. Bace paid no attention to it and sat quietly until the trees turned to buildings on either side of him. The cart slowed as the crowds grew thick.
“Well, it’s yer lucky day. Looks like we have here a good ol’ fashn’d slave auction.” The man belched and then yelled at someone to move out of his way. When they reached the square Bace was pulled out and pushed into a line with a few dozen other people. Bace glanced at a young man beside him. He looked about Kale’s age but he was thin with dark freckles and red hair. He smiled. Bace squinted back as the man held out his hand.
“The name’s Grid. I can tell we’re both not from around here.” Bace hesitantly shook his hand. “And that’s my sister down the line.” Bace found the second red head in the line and then looked back at the man.
“You do realize we’re being sold right now.” He muttered.
“Yeah.” He said excitedly.
“Are you real?” Bace asked but before Grid could answer they were interrupted by a roaring laughter soaring through the crowd. They were all watching the auctioneer. The cart driver had wandered further down the line and suddenly pushed Grids sister forward. She flew into the crowd and screamed as a group of men pulled at her clothes to reveal her skin. Bace felt fury rise inside of him but Grid reacted much quicker. He flew forward but was held back by a pair of slave drivers. Bace took the moment to drive forward and landed a solid fist in one of the man’s jaws. The man fell to the ground unconscious so the others quickly let go of the girl before they could meet the same fist. The girl fell forward and scrambled away. Bace felt a pair of hands grab his clothes as the men around him retaliated but he quickly spun and slammed his fist into his captors’ stomach. He felt more hands at his back but Grid was suddenly at his side and threw the man to the ground. Bace turned but the masses slowly swallowed him up until he was surrounded and being pushed to the ground by the weight of the frenzied crowd. Everyone around him suddenly froze as a tall man on a thin horse crashed through the people.
“Grid.” Bace motioned for him to stop. He froze but the man he had been wrestling with threw him to the ground.
“Enough.” The man on the horse yelled over the crowd. Bace met his gaze and glared. They stared each other down until Bace let go of the man’s shirt and stepped away.
“Get off of me.” Grid yelled as he scrambled to his feet.
“I will double any offer made on these two.” The man on the horse said to the auctioneer with a heady accent. The man gasped and fumbled with his pen. He leaned over as his assistant whispered in his ear. He straightened again.
“Forty pounds for the pair of them.” The auctioneer yelled and then wrote down the numbers in his book. He was paid promptly and then Bace and Grid were dragged forward and tied at the wrists to the man’s horse. Bace looked back at Grid who was trying to see his sister one last time.
“I’m sorry.” He said as the young man turned around. Bace watched the thin figure in front of him and scanned the rich clothing and dark grey hair. He scratched his neck with spidery fingers and then turned them down a road leading out of the city. Bace couldn’t remember his feet ever meeting such a treacherous road. The rocks were loose underfoot and both he and Grid found it hard to stay on their feet. With every slip, they sent a landslide of dust and loose rocks tumbling down the slope. If either man would fall the other had no choice but to follow as the rope bound them together. The sturdy horse was the only thing keeping them from tumbling to the river below. When they finally met the grass again Bace would have thrown himself down had he Master not kept them moving forward. Grid groaned as they heard the soft thud of a boot meeting flank and the horse started at a slow jog. Bace felt the rope suddenly tug but now with solid ground below he managed to stay on his feet and pull Grid to his. Grid suddenly gasped. Bace looked back and then followed his gaze. The river they had been following suddenly widened into a large lake surrounded by green mountains. The lake was surrounded by half a dozen palaces towering up against the shore. The jealous water tried to reflect the glorious stone but failed miserably as the soft waves distorted the many colors. The water had been reflecting these mountains for so long it could hardly seem to remember its true color.
Bace practically ran into the horse’s rump in front of him but stopped just in time. Grid smacked into him from behind. He would have turned had his gaze not been fixated on the palace before them. He hardly noticed the master remove his bonds and then Grid’s. The palace was mountainous, almost threatening to the mountains. The white wash stone grew high above them and the clay roof burned a bright red. A few dozen horses grazed in the field at the back of the house.
They entered through a tall arched doorway and found themselves in a large stable. The sun filled the room as no roof blocked it out and dozens of stables lined the walls. A pile of hay filled a corner where a few men bent their backs as they forked it into the stables. They crossed the room, following their master, but Grid was suddenly pulled away. If the stables had been grand the courtyard was imposing. A large pond teaming with fish filled the center of the room, also lacking a roof. In the east wall loomed three archways with the middle one being the tallest allowing the full height of the mountain across the lake to be seen. A light cobblestone path led them around the pond, past a few flower beds, and through rows of olive trees. They passed through another tall archway and for the first time met a solid roof covering a long hallway with four more hallways leading off to their left. The east wall, overlooking the lake, hosted dozens of arched windows.
“I can understand why you wouldn’t want to cover up a view like that.” Bace ventured. He wasn’t sure whether or not he was allowed to speak. His master looked out one of the windows, smiled, but then turned. A large arched window filled the far end of the hallway and Bace swore he caught a glimpse of the ocean miles away before turning left towards a dark stairwell. The master had stopped at the top. Bace looked at his master and then at the torches lining the wall then back at his master. He slowly stepped forward and then started down the stairs. He glanced back as the door closed behind him and then finished the rest of the stairs to enter the palace kitchen. When he stepped into the room he glanced around as half a dozen ladies stopped what they were doing and turned to watch him. The room fell silent as they scrutinized. Bace stepped back up onto the bottom stair. Suddenly a large lady stepped forward and glanced around at the others.
“They’ve finally sent us a hauler.” She grinned happily as the other ladies chimed in and all stepped forward. Each lady could have passed as either Bace’s mother or grandmother. They gathered around him, wiping their hands on their aprons before checking him over. Finally the big lady pushed them all away. Bace was already on the fifth step.
“Alright, alright, ladies. Give him some room. We don’t want to suffocate him.” She turned to Bace and smiled. “Well, come on then. We don’t have all day. I’ll show you around – oh, but you’ll need a uniform first. I’ll have one sent down to you.” As the ladies went back to their work Bace was shown around by the big lady with withering hair and a flushed face. On the west wall, some ten feet up were two small arched windows letting in thin beams of sunlight. Torches lined the walls and two large ovens filling the southern wall let off their own glow. A well stood in the center of the room and dozens of counters and boilers lined the perimeter. A large cavity big enough for Bace to sit comfortably in sat within the north wall beside the stairwell. The big lady noticed him eyeing it up. She led him over.
“This is where we load the food. Then we pull this rope which pulls this whole platform to the main level where the servers above can bring it to the Main Hall. They can send things back to us too. It makes for a lot less foot work if you know what I mean.” She grinned and clasped her hands together.
“I see.” He said.
“Ah, he does speak.” A younger lady said loudly to the room.
“Better watch that stew or you’ll burn it, Edith.” The big lady grumbled and turned back. “It’s about time we introduce ourselves. That’s Edith, as you’ve heard.” She started leading Bace around the room again and introduced each lady as they passed by. “This is Gwen, Daelia, Ida, and Brenda.” Ida greeted Bace in Daini and was very pleased when he replied back to her in the same language but they stopped behind Brenda who was feverously pounding at a lump of dough. She turned, breathless, and held out her hand. She seemed to be the youngest of the bunch. Her hair was dark and coarse but held back in a messy lump at the back of her head. Her eyes were a dark green and her grip was firm.
“How do you do?” She asked, speaking with a strong Dyritican accent heard mostly along the west coast. Bace glanced around and then grabbed her hand.
“Fine.” He replied. She grinned and then went back to her pounding. Bace turned to the big lady again.
“And my name is of course Gena.” She said.
“Of course.” Bace mumbled as her attention was drawn to a young boy entering the room. Brenda turned and grinned at his comment as she worked her back into the dough. Gena called Bace over and handed the uniform to him. The boy disappeared up the stairs as Gena returned to the oven and aggressively started poking whatever was inside. Bace glanced around, holding the uniform quietly.
“Don’t worry, we won’t look.” Brenda yelled across the room without turning. Bace heard a few snickers and caught a few grins but none looked his way. He quickly changed, transferred his gold coin to the new pocket, and then left his old clothes on the stairs. Through the next week Bace established a schedule. Each morning he would rise long before the sun to meet the cart that brought up fresh ingredients from the city. He could transfer them over to their own cart which he would then pull as close to the building as possible. He had until the sun rose to haul five bags of flour, four crates of fresh fruit, and four slaughtered pigs to the kitchen. He then quickly hauled up enough water to fill all four basins throughout the kitchen. This was all done by the time the ladies rose and started breakfast. He then moved to the gardens outside where he would collect three more crates already filled with fresh vegetables pulled that morning by the gardeners. It was then his duty to collect and prepare enough fish from the many ponds throughout the acreage for lunch. He also had to be available for loading the food onto the trolley and pulling the rope until it met the servers above for both breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon he slaughtered chickens and peeled potatoes then managed the spits which were roasting up to two dozen chickens at a time if company was over. He slowly learned how to make soups and stews, breads and biscuits, rice and puddings, but his evenings were always free. He was usually so exhausted at the end of it all that he ended up finding his bed but occasionally he found himself staying behind with the ladies for clean up if they were behind or chatting with Grid in the stables.
After a month of the strenuous routine Bace could clearly identify the highlight of his day. In the afternoon, when all he had left was dinner preparation he could spend all the time he wanted hacking at fish and chickens at the north end of the palace outside the hall. He was usually alone for his job was not coveted and he found the different textures of the blood, meat, and bones enlightening. Unfortunately for Bace his impertinent luck of head injuries eventually found him again. It was early one morning when he was alone and hauling water up from the well. The bucket was almost to the top so he reached down to grab the handle but heard a loud snap and felt the wooden bar supporting the pulley and bucket crack down on his head. He felt weightless for a moment and then crashed into the water below. He blacked out the moment he hit the water but woke a second later. He surfaced and felt the bucket crash onto the same spot on his head. The rope slowly gathered around him and he narrowly avoided the wooden bar that came down with it. He swore loudly and listened to his voice echo up the chamber. He clumsily grabbed hold of the wall and started scaling. He made it five feet up before slipping and falling back down. Cob suddenly appeared above.
“No!” He yelled up, exasperated. “Get out of here Cob.” He panted.
“Who’s Cob?” Brenda suddenly appeared above.
“Brenda!” He exclaimed.
“I’m afraid there’s no swimming in the drinking water, Sir.” She yelled down as she tossed a rope over. Bace grabbed it and felt it go taught a moment later. Bace tried to help with his feet but he could hear her straining above. Bace thought he heard a distant rustle before he suddenly jolted up and felt as if he was flying. As he neared the top he braced himself as he didn’t seem to be slowing.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He said as two of the cooks grabbed his arms. “Slow down.” He said as they pulled him over.
“Don’t you worry, Bace.” Gena said as she pulled him to his feet. The floor was instantly soaked.
“Are you hurt?”
“That’s such a long drop!”
“Must be forty feet.”
“It was not forty feet. It’s like ten.” The questions came at him like rapid fire as the ladies poked and prodded him. Bace swatted hands away and jumped out of the circle.
“I’m fine.” He held up his hands to keep them at bay.
“Oh, Bace. Calla mnen ghan!” That was Ida speaking Daini. Bace found her to be the most motherly of the bunch.
“No, I’m fine.” He glanced around at each of them.
“But your head.”
“It’s fine, just fine.” He said as Cob joined the group of ladies. Cob crossed his arms and gestured towards the group of ladies. The ladies watched him intently and then followed his gaze. He looked back at them.
“It’s fine, just a bump.” He touched the sore spot, winced, but then showed his fingers. “See, no blood.” He ensured. He stepped back slowly onto the stairs. The group of ladies watched him quietly.
“Why don’t you go and change then, dear.” This came from Daelia, a frail woman with curly white hair. Bace turned up the stairs and quickly ran to his room. It turned out that the four hallways he had passed on his first day led to a total of forty-four doors all leading to small rooms for the servants. Each was shared by a partner but Bace didn’t use the room for anything but sleeping and his roommate didn’t seem interested in having any sort of relationship. He changed quickly into his extra uniform and then ran out to quickly gather the crates of vegetables. The ladies thanked him as he brought in the last crate and then snuck an apple into his jacket. He ate it quickly and then hauled the trolley filled with breakfast to the servants above. Bace couldn’t believe how heavy the trolley was. Brenda suddenly appeared and stole the half-eaten apple from his pocket as he pulled. She leaned on the table and took a bite. Bace glanced at her.
“It’s made of stone, you know.” She remarked as she chewed.
“I can see that.” He grunted as he readjusted and then pulled again. Edith snorted and leaned closer from where she stood cutting potatoes.
“Our master has never been one to think of others. He’s more concerned about what the trolley looks like.” She nodded like she had just said the most important thing in the world. Bace finally felt the trolley lock in place at the top and let go. He snatched his apple away and finished it off as he started up the stairs. Cob joined Bace’s routine for the rest of the day as he continued fishing and then slaughtering. He grabbed a chicken and sat on a tree stump.
“Where’s your bird?” Bace asked as he pulled the feathers from the bird.
“In the trees. Seems I better keep a close eye on him.” Bace ripped more feathers free and then glanced up.
“Your headache has come back again, hasn’t it.” Cob said quietly. Bace stopped.
“I’ve had a head ache every day for quite a while now, Cob.” He grumbled.
“But it’s gotten worse again.”
“Yes, you know that seems to happen when you get smacked in the head with a wooden pole.” He looked up and met the eyes of Brenda. He swallowed as she stepped closer and knelt beside him. She grabbed his head and looked into his eyes.
“People talk to themselves all the time, Bace. But this is something entirely different.” She spoke quietly and shook her head. “You have a long history of head injuries. I can see the damage in your eyes.”
“What?” He asked.
“Your eyes shake. So slightly, but I can see it. I’ve seen it before. But never like this. Especially not in one so young.” She let go of his head and sat back on her heals. Bace turned back to the chicken.
“You should get back to work.” He warned.
“Bace, I know you’re used to pushing people away. I realize that, but if I could help you, would you listen?” She asked quietly, looking around. Bace looked up at her again.
“Can you?” He asked.
“You answer my question first.” She whispered. Bace glanced over as Cob suddenly appeared again, this time with his bird on his shoulder. He looked back down at Brenda. She stared up at him and waited patiently for his answer.
“No.” He replied coldly. Brenda’s expression didn’t change.
“I understand.” She stood, and then seemed to reconsider. She turned and knelt again. Her expression seemed to darken. “I know who you are, Bace.” She whispered. Bace nearly dropped his chicken but managed to keep his expression stable. He swallowed. She suddenly grabbed his hands.
“When you make it back to your land you must find a man named Drekken. He’s going to hurt you. It’s really going to hurt. But you must find him. It is the only way to save our people.” She paused, glancing around. She looked back into his eyes, drew him in again. “It is the only way. You must find the truth.” She stood.
“What truth?” Bace asked as she walked away. She stopped and turned.
“Marked, marked, prey of the dark. Slay he who bears the Ender’s mark.” She chanted. Bace quickly grabbed the scar on his shoulder with his hand. Brenda’s chin rose as she eyed him sadly. Finally she turned. Bace watched her go and then looked down at his chicken. He heard Cob walk over. Felt his hand on his shoulder. Cob knelt down and Bace looked over.
“I have to get home.” He said quietly.
 “Oh, Bace. Let us help!”