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Reader Discretion is Advised
Lemme see....Ah yes.
To Shieldmaiden, for asking me as soon as I got on whether I was goin' to write fanfics or draw art. You gave me the prompting to start a story, even though I hated writing when I started. (I wouldn't put pencil to paper willingly, I had graphophobia)
It was a dark and stormy night. Rain fell in thick sheets, blurring trees, rock, and shrub into one gray mass. The traveler’s footpaws squelched in the sticky mud as he fought his way through the storm. The wind whipped him mercilessly and tried to snatch away the cloak that covered him. He was a blur in a landscape of blurs, cloak puttled tight about him and hood up. Not a single hair was left exposed to the storm. Through the downpour, a glimmer of light showed itself from the mouth of a cave. Inside, it was warm and dry. The smell of smoke hung heavy in the air, its sweet muskiness lending the cave a homely feel.
A shape at the edge of the fire stirred, looking up at the intruder. It was a squirrel, old beyond guess. His once red fur was now a silvery gray, and his nimble limbs now creaked with rheumatism. A smile broke over his features as he waved the wanderer in.
“Come in out of the darkness and storm, my friend. It’s been far too long since I’ve had a visitor. Not many come to hear ancient history, even if I did live it. Settle yourself in, it’s quite a tale I have to tell, about slaves, injustice, and split families. Both trust and mistrust play a large part in my story. This tale centers around an unlikely friendship between a prince and a slave.” The old squirrel shook his head. “Now there I go giving away part of the story. Let’s begin before I ruin the end as well.”
“It all began one day in late spring, many, many, seasons ago…”
The fails of the throng,Enough for a Prince to give up his kingdom?
The water is warm today,’’ thought Colan as he kicked upwards off the seafloor towards the surface. Bubbles surrounded him as he spiraled upwards through the aquamarine depths. The pull of the bulging bag on his belt reminded him of the fact that he wasn’t here for fun, he had a job. And if he didn’t perform well…well, he’d just do his job and not think of that.
He broke the surface, blinking at the bright spring sun. The warm salt breeze sweeping towards the island off the sea tickled his nose, and Colan sneezed. Swimming over to the coracle he had anchored not far away, he pulled himself halfway out of the water. Looking over the opposite side of the coracle, he studied the island he called home. A clean white beach separated the sea from rolling fields of crops. Perched on a hill some distance away was a white stone palace. Colan’s father, Athuran, had told him that the finishing touches had been put on the palace when he was sixteen seasons old, the same age as Colan. Behind the palace, green-leafed trees swayed in the salt breeze.
The scene would’ve been peaceful, had it not been for the crack of the whip and the cries of its victims that echoed across the water. Squirrels, mice, shrews, and some otters were working in the fields, pushed ever faster by the whips of their overseers. Colan counted himself lucky that he was a diver; the overseers couldn’t push him so hard. Thinking of that reminded Colan that he still needed to work. Captain Ripfur, who oversaw the fishing and diving, and loved to embarrass and needle the slaves under him as much as possible, didn’t take kindly to slackers. Well, he didn’t take kindly to slaves in general, but he was harsher to those that didn’t fill their coracles by the end of the day.
Colan reached down with one paw and unhooked the bag around his waist. Heaving it into the little boat, he upended it, dumping its contents to the floor of the coracle with a clatter to join the twoscore specimens that already lay there. They were oysters, shiny as crystal and black as night. Most of them held only the oyster, but some held pearls that would be added to her majesty Queen Laburnum’s personal collection, to be made into pawrings sand necklaces later by slaves that showed skill as artisans.
Colan’s stomach rumbled as he stared at the oysters, but he couldn’t eat one, not yet. He had to be sure that he had enough to satisfy Ripfur before he began to eat his catch. Colan clipped the bag to his belt and took several deep breaths. Then he dove.
Down, down into the water he dove. Colan remembered the time when he was afraid to go so deep, and settled for the smaller oysters in the shallower areas. He had gotten many a whipping for returning with inadequate oysters before he began diving deeper. Now he dove deeper than anybeast else, and returned with larger oysters.
Colan’s paws toughed the seafloor and he looked around. The pressure the entire sea above him pressed in from around him, but he knew his body could stand it. He didn’t want to try pushing his luck much farther though. Colan vaguely remembered an incident some seasons back, when he had just started. Queen Laburnum’s son, Prince Alspur, had been out in a boat when he dropped his dagger in the water. He had called an otterslave over and ordered him to fetch it. The slave had pleaded with Alspur to leave it there, it was too far down. Prince Alspur then said that either the slave dove for it, or his family would be locked in their house and burned. The otter had gone down, blood had come up, and the slave joined the Prince’s dagger on the seafloor. Alspur had shrugged and commented that he had plenty more daggers just like it back at the palace. This had occurred not much further out than Colan was now.
Colan swam over to an oyster that had anchored itself to a second one. Ha, two for one. He thought as he pulled his knife from his belt. It wasn’t really a knife, simply a ground oyster shell, but it was the only sharp thing he was allowed to carry. Colan braced himself against a rock and pulled on the bottom oyster, slashing under it with the sharpened oyster shell. Colan slipped the oysters into his belt pouch and kicked off the bottom to get a breath of air. He had wasted too much time thinking instead of working, and now he had run out of air.
Halfway up, Colan noticed another boat near his coracle. This one was a proper boat, with oars sticking into the water. Colan gave an inward groan, why would Ripfur do a surprise inspection? He wouldn’t find anything out of the ordinary, he never had, and he never would. For a moment Colan hovered in the water, but then his lungs reminded him that he needed air, and he reluctantly continued towards the surface.
Colan broke the surface and studied the boat for signs of what it might mean. Four otterslaves sat at the oars, looking tired but otherwise fine. In the bow stood Captain Ripfur, a bulky rat with half of his right ear missing. A cutlass hung from his left side, and he held a whip coiled in his right paw. At the sound of Colan’s swimming, he turned his steely gray eyes to look at him.
“Git over ‘ere, slave!” He barked, “I don’t ‘ave all day.” Colan swam over until he was directly under the bow of the boat, craning his neck to look at Ripfur. “That’s better.” He said. “Divin’s over for t’day, everybeast is ordered t’ attend th’ execution of th’ would-be-assassins of King Alcon.” He gave Colan a look of disgust, “Make sure ya get some clothes on first though, yer not there to impress th’ females.” He turned his back on Colan and shouted to the rower, cracking his whip over their heads. “Put yer backs inta it, ya lazy fish’eads! To th’ shore, double time.”
Colan had to swim out of the way as the boat lurched over the spot he had just occupied. He felt his face burning as Ripfur was rowed away, laughing at his joke. He knew Ripfur had said that just to embarrass him, but it still sent the blood rushing to his face. It was normal among the divers to wear nothing but your belt, there was less drag that way and diving took less effort, which was important when you did it the entire day. All the divers were males anyway, Ripfur had the notion that females were better cooks and cleaners than divers and fishers. Colan though he was probably right, the few meals his father had cooked had been awful, but he was wrong about the males being better at fishing. He knew a few otterwives that could fish the rudder off any of the males. Colan though about what his friend Cetyl’s reaction would be if he went walking around the compound with only his belt on. He imagined it’d be something along the lines of Uhh, Colan? You forgot yore clothes. Not impressed at all. Besides, Colan thought as he began swimming for shore, dragging the coracle behind him, It’s not like I have the muscles to impress anybeast with.
It was true. Colan was plenty strong for the work he did, but it wasn’t apparent. He was one of those beasts that didn’t appear as strong as they actually were. Colan pushed Ripfur’s jibe out of his mind, it was just to get him riled, nothing more. He succeeded in pushing it away, only to have his mind take a more sinister trail. He had heard rumors that King Alcon had nearly been assassinated by his family’s personal slaves, but it had only been rumors until now.
Soon his paws touched bottom and he was dragging the coracle up the beach past the tideline. Captain Ripfur was already there. He pointed to a nearby weasel, “You! Check this ‘un over.”
The weasel, a well-built beast with a black-furred right paw, walked over and frisked Colan. Well, this is unneeded. Thought Colan as he was patted down. Where am I gonna hide something? In me fur?
“Open.” The weasel ordered him sharply, placing a paw on the side of Colan’s muzzle. The otter obliged, and after peering around his mouth, the guard stepped back a pace. “Arms up!”
“Swing ‘em now!”
“Right footpaw up!”
“Now th’ left ‘un!”
Colan preformed all the tasks the soldier gave, from holding up his footpaws to waggling his rudder. The process took a whole five minutes, and much of it was unneeded commands that the weasel added just to be bossing somebeast around. Finally the guard got bored and pronounced him clear, after removing the oyster shell blade and tossing it into a basket in the coracle for safe keeping.
Colan grabbed his tunic from the coracle and moved a short distance away from Ripfur. The Captain would think it funny to confiscate his tunic on the grounds that he could strangle somebeast with it. Colan removed his belt and shook himself, getting much of the excess water off. Then he donned the rough homespun tunic and clipped the belt over it. Satisfied that he was now decent, he began walking down the path that led to the main road that stretched between the palace and the docks. He merged with the flow of traffic that moved toward the palace. Most were slaves in the fields, but some were workers at the docks or fishers. He saw a few divers who had been delayed like him, but most were already far ahead. He nodded to a hedgehog that cleaned the tavern by the docks and also to a pretty mousemaid that waited on the tables there.
Colan spotted his brother up ahead, and he broke into a trot to catch up. “How was fishin’?” He asked as he drew level.
“Bad.” Muttered Runtha, “Shark attack today, it got Chippen.”
Colan missed a step at the news. Chippen hadn’t been any good friend of his, but getting eaten by a shark was a horrible way to go. Fishing was notorious for its shark attacks, with the struggling and sometimes bleeding fish that the fisherbeasts hauled out of the water. The news effectively killed any further conversation, and they walked in silence for the rest of the way.
Soon they were walking through the town outside the gates of the palace. The wooden houses lined the dirt street, blocking out much of the sunlight. Across the street, a boor banged open and a rat stumbled out, followed by a pot, which bounced down the street. A ratwife stepped into the doorframe, waving a knife threateningly.
“Come back when yer sober, or not at all!” she shouted after the rat as he staggered down the street. “Yer too pushy an’ bossy after th’ score o’ flagons yew’ve ‘ad.”
Colan ducked his head to hide his smile. It wasn’t every day that he saw a rat get his tail whipped by his mate. Now they were walking next to the high wooden palisade of the slave compound. Guards patrolled the walkway that encircled the top of the palisade. Each night Colan reported to Ripfur at the gate, who, after a few more jibes, checked him off his list and let him in. The houses inside were more ramshackle huts than proper dwellings, and they were small and crowded. The meanest soldier could get a five room, well-built, cozy house easily while the slaves who built the house shivered in their drafty, one-room huts.
“Colan!” Runtha’s voice brought him back to reality, making him jump and look around. He hadn’t noticed the crowd pressing in around him, nor the gate of the palace looming high above him. Even now he was beginning to cross the drawbridge, the river running below him. The white stone towered above the crowd, making Colan feel small. As he passed through the gate, he glanced up at the portcullis hanging above him by thick iron chains. It was a sight that made him uneasy. Hundreds of pounds of iron hung above him with large iron spikes pointing downwards. He wouldn’t put it past one of the soldiers to send the portcullis crashing down for fun, the only punishment would be a few lashes for the destruction of royal property.
Colan moved with the crowd down a dark stone tunnel that burrowed its way through the thick wall. Suddenly he was in the palace courtyard, blinking at the bright sunlight. Colan hesitated; he wasn’t sure where to go. He was of two minds about the execution of these slaves. Yes, they had tried to kill King Alcon, but they had also been terrible snitches. Their reports had gotten slaves executed on more than one occasion. Runtha moved up towards the middle, motioning at him to follow. Colan reluctantly went with him. When Colan stopped moving, he got his first glimpse of the condemned.
They were a family of four mice, dressed in finery, now tattered and bloodstained. The backs of their clothes were almost gone, slashed to ribbons by the whip. One was missing an ear, another an eye, and a third his forepaw. All of them had their footpaws bound tightly together and their forepaws tied to a beam above their heads. They were covered from head to tail with bruises. Silently they hung, whiskers and tails drooping, in front of the jeering mob of vermin. Colan stirred with unease as he heard a few slaves shouting in the crowd as well.
“Th’ sunset’s supposed t’be beautiful tonight mousie. Too bad yew won’t live t’ see it!”
“Yah, th’ royal fishies are gonna ‘ave flayed mousie t’night.”
“Harr, harr, keep th’ cleanin’ crew ready, mates! They’ll be moppin’ up mousie soon!”
A shrill voice shouted out from behind Colan, “Now ye’ll pay for yer tattlin’! My Vertal well be avenged by yer death!”
Suddenly a beat of a drum rolled out over the crowd, its bass boom reverberating in Colan’s chest. The shouts and jeers of the crowd died down until only the low murmuring of whispers remained. The doors of the palace slowly opened and Captain Markul, the overseer of the palace slaves and the spokesbeast for the royal family, stepped out of the palace and walked forward to stand on a raised platform next to the trussed-up mice.
“Silence for King Alcon, Ruler of Aguinal, Terror of the Western Sea, countless riches fill his treasure chambers, grain overflows his storehouses, all the treasures of the sea belong to him, may his name outlast the seasons!”
Except for the one pearl Runtha stole from Father a few weeks back. Thought Colan, That ‘un’ll never make it to…wait. Oh yeah, Runtha gave the pearl to a soldier in exchange for extra rations for himself.
A hush fell over the crowd as four more figures emerged from the palace doors. The first was a large, heavy-set male ferret. He wore a shirt of chainmail, with plates of iron inlaid with gold on his shoulders and chest. A heavily-muscled paw rested of the hilt of the ornate broadsword at his side. The hilt was solid gold, inset with many types of precious stones. The scabbard was iron, heavily inlaid with gold, a line of gems set down the middle, sending the sunlight that hit it in a thousand different directions. An ornately crafted gold crown rested on the top of his head. Colan couldn’t see the designs, but he didn’t need to to know that it showed the royal house killing and enslaving otters, mice, shrews, moles, hedgehogs, squirrels, and all manner of woodlanders. As much as Colan hated the king, he couldn’t help admiring his strong figure. This wasn’t a beast that, just because he was king, he sat around getting fat. There was only muscle on his frame.
After King Alcon came Queen Laburnum. She was the opposite of her mate in body frame, almost a head shorter and of slight build. The Queen wore a wispy dress of a violent red color. Her small frame was weighted down by an assortment of necklaces, pawrings, tailrings, earrings, and jewelry of all sorts. Her crown was slimmer and lighter than the king’s, but every square inch was encrusted with jewels so it appeared that an exotic butterfly had landed on her head.
Behind her, walking side-by-side, came the princes. Prince Alspur was the eldest of the two, and at eighteen seasons of age he was an exact copy of his father, with the exception of any scars. Tall and thick-boned, he moved in deliberate motions, each pawstep falling heavily on the stone slabs of the courtyard. He wore a gold and silver-threaded tunic and a crimson cape fastened over one shoulder. An ornamental dagger hung at his belt in a sheath of solid gold. Alspur looked over the crowd, contempt evident of his face.
Prince Torrin was the youngest, at sixteen seasons. He wasn’t as heavily-built as his father, but he wasn’t slender like his mother either. His frame was somewhere in-between the two. He wore a tunic with the simplest of gold embroidery on one shoulder. As he moved, there was a spring in his step, as if there was stored energy hidden in his body and some escaped as he walked. He looked around the silent crowd, his face a blank mask. Colan, try as he might, couldn’t figure out what the prince was feeling.
Four ornately carved oak thrones were carried onto the raised platform by a number of slaves. Those can’t be comfortable. Colan thought as the royal family sat down. Queen Laburnum was at the King’s right paw, and the two princes were at his left. Alcon rose again and stepped forward to the edge of the platform. He raised his voice until its deep tones rolled to the furthest corners of the palace square, making sure everybeast could hear.
“I asked you to come here today to witness the demise of those who attempted to kill me.”
Maybe for the corsairs at the docks or the soldiers it was a choice. Thought Colan, then he noticed Alcon looking at the bound mice, and he felt his blood run cold. He had seen that expression on Ripfur’s face a few times, but never with the intensity that he saw it now. Flames…he’s anticipating it. He can’t wait to kill those mice.
Alcon signaled and Markul hurried forward with a large double-edged sword. Markul kneeled and held it out, then hastily backed away as the king took it. At first Colan couldn’t figure out what made the blade look so strange, then he realized it had no tip, its point was a flat edge. A blade made for executions. Realized Colan as Alcon turned back to the crowd.
“As they die,” he said, leaning on the sword, “they will realize what fools they were to think that they could kill me.” Then he addressed the slaves directly. “Slave, as their pleads for mercy go unanswered, let them remind you that the same will go for you if you attempt some foolish act.”
One of the mice spoke up, his voice cracked from pain. “You are a fool yourself if you think we would plead to you.”
Alcon merely smiled, a smile that sent chills down Colan’s spine. “We will see.” Turning his back on the crowd, he studied his two sons. Alspur looked at his father with eager expectation, glancing longingly at the sword. Torrin kept up his blank expression, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead. “Torrin.” He said finally, “I grant you the duty of slaying these would-be assassins.”
For a second the blank mask faltered and began to fall, but Prince Torrin regained it so fast that Colan wasn’t sure if he had actually seen it. Alspur didn’t even try to mask the disappointment that he felt. Torrin stepped forward and grasped the outstretched pommel. Alcon released the blade and it dipped, nearly touching the ground before Torrin adjusted. He hefted it and swung experimentally a few times, then turned to his brother. Reversing his grip, he held out the pommel.
“It would be a pleasure to rid the world of these fools, Father, but I feel that because of my brother’s position as firstborn prince, and his expertise with heavier weapons, he should have the privilege.”
King Alcon looked slightly angry but said nothing as Alspur snatched the sword from his brother’s paws. Alspur stepped toward the first slave, and Alcon settled back on his throne, the same malicious anticipation on both their faces.
“Plead for mercy and maybe I’ll spare you.” Alspur said to the first mouse.
“If I thought pleading would save me, I’d have already started.” Shouted the mouse, obviously the spokesbeast. “You’ll hear no pleading from us!”
Alspur smiled maliciously, “All the better.” He said, then gripped the sword with both paws a swung, cleaving through the mouse’s midsection. Crimson liquid darkened the stones, running off the swordblade, soaking the fur of the dead mouse and running under the paws of the remaining trio. Alspur took a deep sniff and moved down the line. Next was an aged female mouse. She was shaking as Alspur swung the dripping sword near her muzzle. “Ready to grovel at my footpaws yet, scum?” He asked disdainfully.
The mouse looked at the corpse swinging beside her, either her mate or her son, Colan hadn’t thought to look and now he couldn’t tell. She took a deep breath. “No.” She calmed her shivering, “Never.”
“Come now.” Alspur taunted. “If you cry for mercy I may only lop off your paws.” The mousewife shook her head defiantly. “Good.” Alspur grinned and suddenly the heavy sword was a blur. The mouse fell screaming to the ground, her footpaws cut out from under her and her forepaws dangling all by themselves from the rope they were died to. The screaming stopped abruptly, and there was a splash as the mouse’s head fell into the crimson stream. The crowd, soldiers and slaves alike, were pressing together to make way for the river of blood that was winding its way out the palace gates and running into the river that split around the palace. The last two mice took a look at the two corpses and the bloody sword Alspur flourished as he stepped toward them and they began screaming for mercy.
Colan turned away and heaved the contents of his stomach onto the flagstones. He longed to leave, to knock himself out, anything to shut out the screams and pleads that came from the platform. Colan raised his gaze and looked at Runtha. His brother was staring at the stage, his mouth open in fascination. Colan was unable to bring himself to look at the raised platform as one of the voices ceased. The stench of blood filled his nostrils and his vision began to darken. He barely realized what he was doing as he staggered towards the spot from which he had entered this entrance to Hellgates. He slumped down against the wall, wishing it would all be over, that he hadn’t received the summons, that he was still living a relatively carefree day out in the sea…
Colan shot up in bed, the rough cloth he used for a sheet soaked with sweat. He collapsed back down, breathing heavily. He groaned and turned over on the dry grass that served as his bed, striving to shut out the echoes of the bloodcurdling screams that had pierced his ears earlier that day. Colan closed his eyes and listened to the deep breathing of the other occupants of the room, his family. He furrowed his brows and sat up again, looking about the dark room.
His father wasn’t there. Colan wasn’t worried though, he knew where his father was. Rising silently, Colan tippawed to the door, careful not to wake his mother or Runtha. Peering around the doorway, Colan looked around in the darkness. Stars filled the sky, dotting the heavens with a billion tiny pinpoints of light. The moon was absent from the sky tonight, but that only meant there would be more darkness to hide in. The only guard in sight was peering over the palisade, holding a flaming torch. The salt tang of the breeze was lessened, but still noticeable. It must be still early in the night. Decided Colan.
Slipping out of the doorway but keeping to the shadows, Colan crept toward the center of the slave compound. There was a clink of metal and Colan dropped to the ground and pressed himself against the base of one of the mud houses. A weasel marched around the corner and past him, cutlass at his side. Poking his head into the doorways as he passed, he checked to see that the slaves were sleeping. Colan exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding as the sentry disappeared around the next corner. Pushing himself up, he continued on. Passing along the walls of a rather nondescript hut, he slipped into a gap between it and the next hut. The passage was narrow, but Colan had ample room. Arriving at a small gap head height, he stopped.
“I wish I was a fish.” He murmured. It was a line from an old otter poem, it used to be longer, but much had been forgotten. The only known word were two lines:
Movement came from within the hut, and a shrew’s face appeared in the dark gap momentarily. Then a paw appeared, waving him on. Colan followed the small alley, reaching a low door at the end. As far as Colan knew, this was the only door in the slave compound that didn’t have vermin guarding it. He turned the knob and stepped into the smoky room beyond.
Heads snapped toward him as he stepped into the room, then the occupants relaxed and turned back to Colan’s father, Athuran, who was sitting on a chair in front of a semicircle of more wooden chairs assembled around a small fire. Most of the chairs were occupied by fellow slaves. Many were sprinkled with grey fur, but a few, like Colan, had weaseled permission from the elder group to attend. Colan took a seat on the packed earth floor next to an empty chair he knew to be his father’s.
Athuran finished the tale he had been telling and stood up. Most of the group touched their snouts with their paws in approval. Colan remembered his confusion the first time he had come to the dark moon gathering. Athuran had explained that because slaves weren’t supposed to gather, loud noises such as clapping were too dangerous. So they had adopted the mole gesture of tugging the snout instead. Nodding gratefully to the listeners, Athuran returned to the semicircle of chairs, taking a seat next to Colan.
Smiling sadly, he whispered to his son, “Couldn’t sleep?”
Colan shook his head.
“I don’t blame you. It was a rough day for everybeast.” Athuran’s face brightened slightly, “Oh, Sanem’s up next. He may be a little cheeky, but he knows more good tales than any two beasts here despite his age.”
Sanem sat down in the storyteller’s chair. He was a squirrel of about twenty seasons of age, small and nimble-looking. His red fur glowed even redder in the firelight. Looking around the room at the numerous expectant faces, he frowned. “Don’t get too excited, my extremely esteemed grey-furs, you haven’t heard my story yet. Time is short, so you’ll have to make do with a condensed version of my story.” He cleared his throat and began.
“As you all know, I’ve only been here a few seasons. I was taken captive off the coast of the Green Isle by a crew of corsairs, the only beast worth keeping after they finally captured our vessel. I had been visiting a friend of mine on the isle, but that’s beside the point.”
“Before that, I lived at Redwall Abbey. It is a place that knows the hardships of war well, but it also knows the joys of peace. Many of its inhabitants through countless seasons have been former slaves, and even its founder, a mouse by the name of Martin, was a slave for part of his life.”
“My tale begins before Redwall abbey was built, about the time Martin arrived in Mossflower. At that time, the area was held under the tyrannical rule of a wildcat named Verdauga Greeneyes. He commanded a formidable army, each soldier wearing the livery of a Thousand Eyes. He had two children, Tsarmina and Gingevere. Martin was captured and brought before Verdauga guilty of carrying a weapon in the Greeneye’s domain. Martin argued that he couldn’t be held accountable because he was only a traveler passing through, and couldn’t know the laws of the land. Verdauga admired the courage he saw in Martin and asked each of his offspring what Martin’s punishment should be. Tsarmina was quick to way that Martin should be killed, even if he claimed to have no knowledge of the law. Gingevere thought that Martin should be escorted to the borders and given back his sword, not to come back under pain of death. Verdauga compromised the two sentences and ordered that Martin should be locked in the dungeons for the winter, then set free. Tsarmina, furious that her suggestion had not be taken, broke Martin’s sword. Martin vowed to slay her for breaking his sword, which had been his father’s.”
“Later that night, Verdauga Greeneyes died. At the time, Tsarmina accused Gingevere of poisoning their father and locked him away in the dungeons, his name never to be spoken again. Gingevere was blamed, but everybeast knew Tsarmina was the poisoner, nobeast would admit it though.”
“Spring came, and a new prisoner by the name of Gonff joined Martin in his cell. Within a day, the two had escaped. They were picked up by the Corim, which was made up of those who fought against the Greeneyes’ rule. Martin soon left for the mountain of Salamandastron, home of the Badger Lords, to request the aid of Boar the Fighter.”
“Meanwhile, two young hedgehogs were captured by Tsarmina and held as hostages. They were kept in separate cells, Gingevere’s cell between them. The cat broke holes in the walls of his cell and brought the young hogs into his own cell, reuniting them. When the guards found them gone from their cells, it was assumed they escaped. After much maneuvering and planning on the Corim’s part, they did escape along with Gingevere, although their rescuer, a brave otter if there ever was one, died in the escape.”
“Much more occurred, but for expediency’s sake I will shorten it. The Greeneyes’ stronghold was flooded and sank, Tsarmina was slain by martin as he vowed he would, and Gingevere settled down with his mate and lived a peacefully as a farmer.”
Sanem stood, “Now, not to sound like a mother, but we should all go to bed. I at least want some rest before I go back to pruning trees.” As he made his way to the door Colan stopped him. “Is there more to the story?”
Sanem smiled, “Oh yes, much more. I’ll tell you sometime.”
“I’ll look forward to when we have the time.” Colan cocked his head. “Another question, why that story?”
Sanem shrugged, “Martin told me.”
Before Colan could ask him what he meant, the red-furred squirrel was gone.
The slave snuck home warily, a few at a time. It was getting towards morning when Colan finally crawled back into his bed, still pondering what Sanem meant. He had heard enough stories of the redstone abbey to know that when Martin spoke, it was for a reason. What was the meaning of the story then? Would somebeast from the abbey come to save them? Some wanderer from a distant shore? Colan pondered the possibilities until he fell asleep. Then he slept like a log for the little remained of the night.
Colan was jolted awake by the boom of a drum. Pushing his dreams of an hour of daytime rest away, he sat up, squinting in the early morning light. Dawn. He thought. Even after yesterday, we still need to get up at dawn. Rising slowly, he smoothed the wrinkles out of his slept-in tunic. Exiting the hut, he made his way to the clearing near the gate.
When Colan arrived, he was surprised to find a large number of slaves milling around near the gate. Usually the overseers hurried the slaves out as fast as possible, but the gates were tightly shut and more slaves were arriving at every moment. The only normal thing was the bins of food that sat at the sides of the clearing. Colan hopped into a line and grabbed his morning and lunch ration, a fish for the morning and a hunk of dry bread and some half-rotted fruit for lunch. Colan sat down in a clear spot and wolfed down his fish, barely breathing. He hadn’t had dinner, as hungry as he usually was at suppertime he couldn’t eat after the execution. He considered eating his lunch too, but he knew he would want it later so he held off.
Standing up and moving over to a well, he leaned over the low stone wall that encircled the dark hole in the ground. Grabbing the rough rope that descended into the depths, he began pulling. Soon a wooden bucket rose out of the darkness, water sloshing about inside. Water. He thought as he heaved the bucket over the side. It’s the only thing we have enough of. Food’s barely enough, our hom—huts are drafty and doorless, even during the fierce storms of winter, and the only off days we have are when the King is feeling especially happy, and that’s mostly on his seasonday. They know they can give us less food if we have plenty of water. Colan took a long drink. Well, he thought as he finished, I guess it’s better to have enough of one thing than not enough of anything.
The drum boomed again, and the fur on the back of Colan’s neck rose as he remembered what that drum had signaled yesterday. Immediately thoughts of possible death approaching invaded his mind. Is that why the gates are closed? So they can thin us out at the leisure with their bows?
The thick gates creaked open to admit Markul and a score of guards. All activity in the slave compound ceased. Mothers checked that their young ones were near, and drew them closer. Fathers unconsciously moved between their families and the menacing guards.
“This week will be a lucky week for one family.” Captain Markul began. “With the execution of the traitors yesterday, the royal family needs new personal slaves. Traditionally, the king selects a family that will serve his purposes, however, King Alcon has decided to allow the princes to select the family of their choice.”
“Throughout the week, the princes will be touring the fields, mines, orchards, waterways, and other places so if you want to be picked be on your best behavior. If your family is picked, you’ll be eating from the King’s table, even if it is only the scraps.” With that, the fox turned and swept out the gate.
The clearing erupted into confusion at the announcement. Of course the idea of actually having enough to eat as well as proper clothing and housing appealed to everybeast, but for most it was overruled by the hate of the tyrant king. There were very few among the slaves that wanted to be in close contact with the murderous ruler day in and day out.
“Alright yew lazy slaves, git to work!” Shouted Captain Nargath, the gigantic ferret overseer of the mines.
Colan walked through the now-open gates and approached the checkpoint for the slaves that worked under Ripfur. The bored weasel guard took one look at him and marked him off on the list tacked to the board in front of him.
“Git down t’ the oyster beds.” The guard muttered, stroking and ink-black paw, “Cap’n Ripfur wants t’ make up fer th’ time we lost yesterday.”
Colan rolled his eyes as soon as the weasel was at his back. Huh, really? I didn’t think relentless Ripfur would want to work us double-time today.
“Where do ya think the Princes will go today?”
Colan turned and looked at his elder brother, “I dunno, and I don’t care either.” He paused, then looked at his brother face, stepping back in disgust. “You want t’ be at their beck an’ call day an’ night?”
“Well, it’d be better than starvin’ an’ workin’ me paws off trawlin’ all day.” Runtha replied heatedly.
“I’m not gonna be at th’ beck an call of th’ beast that orders my friends killed, no matter how much I need to work.” Colan retorted.
“Still sore over the death of Derick?” Runtha asked scathingly. “I’ll tell you, the fool deserved it, shooting his mouth off like that.”
Colan stopped, his face a mask of shock. Runtha continued on, a swagger in his step as he realized he had touched a sore spot. Rage quickly overcame Colan’s shock, a white-hot inferno that nearly blinded him. Colan wanted nothing more than to punch Runtha, to beat him until he took back what he had said. Nobeast deserved to be tied to a rock and dumped off the side of a boat into the ocean. Colan still had nightmares of it, Derick screaming for mercy as Ripfur pushed him off the boat, Colan frantically struggling in the grasp of two ferret guards, trying to come to his friend’s aid.
Colan took a step toward his brother, paw clenched, then caught the eye of a fox standing on the side of the road, looking on a amusement. Colan’s fury evaporated like dew in the summer sun. Whatever anybeast did to him, he would not amuse vermin.
Colan retreated into his mind and set his paws on the path to the shoreline. Raising the mental walls he had conditioned over the seasons for times like this, he locked his emotions behind them, hiding them from the outside world. Some beasts said he had gone cold after Derick’s death, incapable or making another friend. They were partially correct. He had one friend, an ottermaid named Cetyl, but she was an exception. Colan didn’t make or maintain any friendships, not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t want to fail a friend again. What was the point of making a friend that might die just because the overseer wasn’t feeling well today and wanted to cheer up?
Colan turned off the main path onto the short one that led to the landing beach for the oyster beds. He could see the crystalline blue sea across the fields, with barely a ripple on the surface. The blue of the sea stretched out to blend seamlessly with the blue of the sky, making it impossible to tell where the sea ended and the sky began.
As he neared the end of the path, Colan broke into a jog, consciously making himself pant. It always went well for him if he arrived breathing hard rather than looking like he took it easy on the way over. When he stepped onto the shoreline, a few otterslaves were already there, pushing their coracles off into the surf.
Ripfur’s whip cracked over his head as the burly rat shouted out threats. “Sleepin’ in, eh? Jump to it an’ git out there or yer gonna feel my whip across yer back!”
“‘M goin’, ‘m goin.” Muttered Colan as he ran over to his coracle. Pulling off his tunic hastily, he quickly stowed it in the small craft. Pushing it into the surf, he began to propel it toward his region of the oyster bed. Ripfur’s edgy today. Colan thought. We can’t be behind, in fact, we’re probably ahead, so why… Colan’s thought trailed off as he noticed a larger boat approaching from the southwest. Oh.
It was a small sailing vessel, large enough for only four or five bests. Its sleek sides cut through the water smoothly, making barely a whisper as it slid through the waves. The royal emblem was stamped on the prow, a pair of crossed swords over a spear, emblazoned inside a circle.
Only three beasts occupied the boat, and only one seemed to be doing anything in particular. Tow, a fox and a weasel, crouched in the bow of the vessel, looking thoroughly bored, while the third beast sat in the stern, tending to the sail and rudder. So this is why Ripfur’s so edgy. Colan thought as the ferret steered the vessel to shore. One of the princes decided to come here today.
“Captain Ripfur!” Shouted the ferret, catching the rat’s attention.
“Prince Torrin!” Ripfur called as he left off berating another slave and hurried over to where the prince was beaching his boat.
Colan eyed the prince apprehensively. He hadn’t been the executioner, but he had say by and watched. Admittedly, Colan had done the same for awhile, before he turned away, but he was only a slave, nothing he could do would help. The only thing he could’ve accomplished would be getting himself killed. But Prince Torrin was, well, a prince. He should have the power to at least make the deaths quicker.
“Climb aboard Captain. I want you to tell me about each of the slaves here.”
“Pardon my asking, my prince, but where is your royal brother?”
Torrin waved his paw vaguely. “Oh, he took the larger boat and said to the fishing grounds, well, he more of got rowed than sailed.”
Colan grabbed the ground oyster shell knife out of the coracle and took a deep breath to dive, but paused and looked at the prince one more time. Despite himself, Colan couldn’t help but like the ferret. He pulled a face, disgusted, but cold not deny the fact that he liked the young prince. Perhaps it was something in his bearing, or in the fact that his clothing was very plain, for a prince. In fact, for today the prince had abstained from all types of adornments, wearing only a thin circled of gold as a prince’s crown atop his head. His clothing was even less decorative than yesterday, being only a plain combat suit, black as night. His emerald eyes shone startlingly against the dark suit.
Torrin’s guards pushed the boat out into the sea, and the prince turned it skillfully, scanning the water ahead for obstacles. Colan’s blue eyes met those emeralds ones, and for a moment there they stayed, Colan glaring resentfully, Torrin studying casually. Then Ripfur began to turn to see what the prince was staring at and Colan dived, disappearing underneath the surface with barely a ripple.
“What are you looking at, my lord?”
“Nothing, which one will you show me first?”
Colan broke the surface of the water and swam over to his coracle. Removing the pouch from his belt, he emptied its contents into the vessel, hearing them rustle against the others in the coracle. Colan peered over the side of the coracle taking stock of his progress. Halfway full, not bad for the time I’ve been out ‘ere.
Voices drifted over to Colan, and the young otter looked around, raising his eyebrows in surprise at how close the prince’s boat was. Only a score or so paces away, there it sat, riding the waves with ease. An old grey-furred otter stood on the boat along with its four other occupants, keeping his eyes fixed on the planks beneath his feet. Ripfur was telling Prince Torrin about the old otter’s personality, grossly exaggerating a rebellious streak in the otter, who was the most docile slave of the whole group.
“I don’t think he wants any of us to leave.” Muttered Colan as Ripfur wrapped up his discussion on the slave’s rebelliousness.
“See? ‘E’s keepin’ ‘is eyes down so yew can’t see the rebellion in those glims of ‘is. Away with yew, slave, the prince doesn’t want yer type!”
As the otter splashed into the water, Torrin remarked drily, “Aye, he wouldn’t have worked, he has no family. I need four beasts for the slaves. There is one left I assume?”
“Yes, yer lordship.”
Colan dove, thinking desperately on how to present himself so he wouldn’t get picked as a personal slave of the royal house. Ripfur said that a slave looking at the ground was hiding rebellion in his eyes, but Colan knew that the slave was more likely afraid to meet the eyes of his master, and vermin liked it when slaves looked at the ground instead of them, it made them feel superior. I’ll do the opposite then. Colan decided, feeling confident. I’ll look the prince straight in the eyes.
Colan reached for the nearest oyster and sliced it off with his knife. Sheathing the shell in his belt, he pushed off the seafloor and shot towards the surface. As his head pushed into clear air, Colan began to swim towards his coracle when Ripfur’s shout stopped him.
“Over here, slave!”
Colan turned and swam over to the boat, stopping to float beside it. Ripfur gritted his teeth with impatience. “Git. Up. Here.”
Colan dove, partially to hide the grin on his face, and partially so he had enough momentum to leap onto the boat. Turning, he shot up out of the water and landed on the vessel, drenching the nearby Ripfur with a spray of seawater. The rat, his face tight with rage, gestured to the fox and the weasel, who stepped up and grabbed Colan by the wrists. Bracing themselves, they drew apart, stretching Colan between them. The young otter found himself facing the prince, who had replaced the blank mask that he had worn during the execution. Colan stared into those eyes, searching for any emotion, but finding none. He heard Ripfur’s whip unravel and slither to the deck.
The Captain’s voice hissed in his ear, “Yes did that on purpose.” Colan didn’t answer. He heard a swish, then a lancing pain shot across his back. Another swish and another lash landed on his back. Tears sprang into Colan’s eyes, but he didn’t make a sound, and who could tell that the tears were running down his cheeks on the fifth and sixth blows when they were already wet from the sea? Finally, on the tenth blow, Ripfur halted. The fox and weasel released Colan and he fell to his knees, striving to hold off the darkness that infringed on his vision. He heard a swishing noise and arched his back in pain as a pail of seawater splashed into the cuts across his back.
Ripfur kicked him in the side savagely, “Git up, yer prince wants to know some stuff about yew.”
Colan rose unsteadily to his feet, but soon re regained his balance. Ripfur stood next to the Prince, grinning maliciously at the pain he had caused.
“What is your name and family status, slave? Speak truthfully, I’ll find out if you aren’t, and it won’t go well for you.”
True to his plan, Colan looked the prince in the eyes, his chin uplifted, the very image of a rebellious slave. “My name is Colan and I’m the youngest of my family. I have and older brother, as well as my mother and father.”
“Eyes on the ground, slave!” Ripfur barked. Colan’s gaze flicked over to Ripfur and rested on the rat for a moment, then returned to Torrin. Ripfur growled and began to reach for his whip again, but Torrin’s voice stopped him.
“Captain, I don’t want to have to wait while you punish this slave every few minutes. Now tell me about him.”
Ripfur let go of his whip bad-temperedly and began to pace between Colan and the prince. “As you must ‘ave noticed by now, my prince, this slave is th’ most insolent wretch of ‘em all. He disrespects yew by lookin’ at yer face instead of at the ground where he belongs. I admit, the only reason I have kept him this long is the fact that he is my best diver, and returns with the most, and best, produce. If it wasn’t for that, the fish would’ve eaten him long ago.”
Ripfur threw his paws in the air. “I don’t know how he does it, but nine times out of ten his oysters have a pearl in them.” Snatching up the oyster that lay on the deck where Clan had dropped it, Ripfur drew his dagger and sliced it open. Plucking the pearl from the inside, he tossed it to Torrin. “That’s what’s keepin’ him alive. Her Majesty wouldn’t be happy wid me if she was getting a greatly reduced amount of pearls all of a sudden.”
Prince Torrin tucked the cloud-white pearl into his belt. “I’m finished here. Slave get back in the water and get to work. The sting of saltwater in those cuts should teach you to keep your eyes where they belong.”
Colan ducked as Ripfur’s whip hissed out at him and dove into the water, wincing as the seawater covered his cuts.
Torrin raised the sail and pushed on the tiller, pointing the prow of the boat landward. As the boat cut through the water, Torrin though back over the day. Besides for the last slave, Colan, they had all been the same, answering questions directly and never making eye contact, leaving as soon as possible. But that last otter…he was the only one with enough courage to look him in the eye. He knew he’d probably get whipped for it, but he went ahead anyway. He wanted to look rebellious; he wants to be my last pick as my own slave. Torrin laughed silently. He’d probably be distressed to find out that he’s become my top pick. Personal slaves get their opinions asked a lot, and I want somebeast that will answer what they think, not what I think.
A fresh breeze had sprung up and after Ripfur had disembarked Torrin rode it swiftly down the coast. Soon arriving at the river, he turned and sailed up it, grateful for the southerly breeze. Coasting up to the palace docks, Torrin was surprised must have docked recently, for Prince Alspur was still hanging about the docks, honing his heavy greatsword with a pleased look on his face. Leavin the fox and the weasel that had accompanied him to finish tying up the boat, Torrin walked over to Alspur.
“I assume you found somebeast?”
Alspur looked up. “Aye, I only had to go through a few wimps before I found one that suited me. I ran him through a test, which he passed with flying colors.”
“What was the test?” Torrin asked, intrigued.
Alspur smiled wolfishly, “None o’ yore business.”
Torrin eyed him for a moment, then shrugged, “What did you find out about him?”
Alspur leaned back, looking bored. “He has a father that works as a fisherbeast as well, I saw him too. He isn’t very big, but strong enough to suit father’s purposes. He also has a mother and a younger brother. The brother’s name is Colan, he works as a diver, so you’ve met him. I haven’t seen the mother, but she’s likely to fit all of mother’s needs. That family is going t’ be my choice.” He grinned teasingly, “Which means it’ll be the one we get.”
Torrin nodded, “Colan would’ve been my choice anyways. Let’s go tell Father that we’ve made our decisions. He can act on them tonight.”
Alspur sheathed his sword and dropped the stone he had been honing it with into his pocket. “Aye, let’s go.”
An hour after Prince Torrin left, Ripfur called all the slaves in from diving. The sun was low on the horizon, and the guards looked it light when all the slaves were traveling back to quarters.
Colan pulled his packed coracle towards shore, confidant for the first time in many a day that he had dived enough to get out of even a verbal berating. As he pulled it beyond the tideline, he looked around. Usually there would be some guard Ripfur had sent to search him approaching, but all the guards seemed to by busy checking other slaves. Confused, Colan looked for Ripfur, and his heart sank as he saw the sadistic overseer approaching, anticipation gleaming in his eyes.
“Disrespectful spawn of a viper!” Ripfur hissed, “Did you really think yew’d git off easy today after ignoring me in front of the Prince like that? Oh, no, waterdog, yer gonna git a thorough inspection today, I know yew ‘ave somethin’ hidden on yew.”
Ripfur gave Colan a wicked smile as he emphasized the word “know”. Colan had a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be getting off the beach without a beating.
Colan didn’t have to wait long for Ripfur to make his move. Digging his claws underneath Colan’s belt, Ripfur withdrew them and held up a soft pink pearl under Colan’s nose. “Thief!” he hissed in the young otter’s ear. “Did you think yew could get away with this? Garr! Vaylor! Come hold this sticky-pawed slave while I teach him a lesson.”
Colan sputtered as two stocky rats grabbed his arms and immobilized him. He stared at the gleaming pearl in Ripfur’s paw, not willing to believe that Ripfur had just planted it on him as an excuse for a beating. Ripfur moved out of his vision, and Colan clenched his teeth, glad that he hadn’t had time to dry off, Ripfur wouldn’t have the satisfaction of seeing his tears. There was a swishing sound, and for the second time today, the beating began.
Ripfur drew the whip back, feeling his muscles flex as he snapped his arm forward, sending the thin rope slashing against the lithe back in front of him. The blood rushed through his head, hot from the rage against this slave that had accumulated over the seasons. He bared his teeth in cruel joy as the slave in front of him slumped down, lost in a pain-filled daze. And still he swung. What was he on now? Twenty? Thirty? He had long ago lost count. The two rats looked strained with the effort of holding the slave up, wining as some of the wilder lashes landed on them. They were far too afraid of him to let the slave drop though.
Finally Ripfur stayed his paw, breathing heavily. “Clean this off.” He growled, tossing the whip to Garr. The rat nodded fearfully and rushed off towards the water’s edge. Ripfur grabbed a nearby pail and tossed it to Vaylor, who filled it with seawater wordlessly. Ripfur surveyed the results of the whipping with an air of detached satisfaction. The young otter’s back was covered in red welts, and many of the slashes had actually broken through the skin, opening angry red slices in Colan’s back. At a nod from Ripfur, Vaylor threw the pail of seawater on Colan’s bleeding back, bringing him back to consciousness with a cry of pain.
“up on yer paws an’ git goin!” Ripfur barked at him. “Yew better git back t’ the compound b’fore sundown or yer gonn git a whippin’.”
Colan rose to his paws, swaying and uttering a small moan of pain, then staggered over to his coracle and grabbed his tunic. Noticing grimly that all the other slaves had left, he began staggering up the path to the road. Halfway there, he stopped and began to put his tunic on, letting out a yell of pain as it came in contact with his back. Deciding not to wear it, he continued on to the road. As he stepped onto the wider path, he saw Runtha sitting on the opposite edge of it waiting for him. Colan paused in surprise as he noticed the bloodstains on his brother’s tunic.
“What happened to you?” he asked, barely mustering the strength to say those few words.
“Nothing.” Replied Runtha quickly. “You look like you’ve had a rough time though. Yore not even dressed. What happened?”
Colan turned and wordlessly showed him the lacerations that covered his back. Runtha took a sharp breath. “Did Ripfur get demoted or somethin’?” he asked quietly. “You look like a flayed fish.” Colan replied with the smallest of shrugs, wincing as it flexed his back muscles. Colan began limping down the road, knowing he had to go as fast as he could if he wanted to reach the slave compound before sunset. How much worse could this day get? he thought wearily.
Colan gritted his teeth and tried to keep from screaming as his mother, Azure, wrapped his back with the bandage made from excess cloth she and the rest of the females in the compound had scrounged up for occasions such as this. Azure tucked the last fold in, then stepped back to survey her nursing skill.
“Aye, that should do it Colan, but try to take the next few days as easily as you can, yore back need as much rest as it can get.”
Colan nodded and gingerly lay on his bed, careful to remain on his stomach. Pawsteps at the door made him look up as Athuran entered, his face grave.
“I have bad news.” He began. “Cetyl’s body was found behind the tavern. Sanem found her, and he says that the corpse had been moved there from a different location. He also said that she was killed by somebeast wielding a large, heavy sword. She’s to be buried early tomorrow morning.”
Colan froze in shock. It had happened again. Just as he was beginning to open up to her…she died. He looked around at the other two faces in the room. Azure looked stricken, the roll of cloth in her paws forgotten, while Runtha had his head down, fiddling with a stone. Darkness began to creep in on him, and Colan couldn’t help thinking that Runtha looked as if he had know Cetyl was dead, that his only friend was dead…
The darkness swallowed everything.
Colan moaned, his back was one all-consuming mass of pain. His paws clenched the soft covers as he strove to block out the pain. He froze suddenly. Soft covers? Oh great, I must be delirious. Forcing his eyes open a crack, he quickly shut them against the bright sunlight that assaulted them. The his mind clicked. Sunlight! He shot up on the cot, yelping in pain as the new scabs on his back split. Flames, I’m late! Ripfur’ll have my rudder in addition to a hundred new lashes. Rolling out of bed, he yelped in surprise as he dropped to the cold stone floor.
Picking himself up, he rubbed his sore elbows and stood up. Nervously glancing about the room, he took in his surroundings. He was in a stone room larger than the hut he had lived in his entire life. The one window in the room was crossed with thick iron bars. He stumbled over and looked outside. A quick glance confirmed what he already knew. He was at the palace in a ground floor room. Looking out over the nearly-deserted courtyard, he saw the gate that led out over the moat and to the village. A couple of ratguards stood at the gate, leaning on their spears and chatting as a young mouse swept the flagstones near them. When the mouse got to where they were, she swept around them as if they were statues, which they could’ve been for all the distance they moved out of the way. Besides for a few guards on the walltop, nobeast else was about.
Turning back to the chamber he was in, he noticed a clean tunic lying folded next to his bed, along with a flask and a small loaf of bread. Picking up the tunic, he noted the softer material it had been bade from. Noticing a piece of barkpaper set next to the loaf of bread, he leaned down and stared at it. Picking it up, he laughed and threw it out the window. Idiots, they’ve already forgotten that I can’t read.
Taking a wild guess at what the note had said, he removed his old tunic and put the new one on, felling uncomfortable with the unaccustomed softness. Picking up the flask, he uncorked it and sniffed it suspiciously. Deciding that it was aright he took a sip. When nothing happened he downed the lot, sighing as the cool water rushed down his throat. Doing the same for the loaf of bread, he ate that as well, eyes widening in surprise as he tasted fresh bread for the first time. After making sure he had eaten every last crumb, he looked around wondering what he was supposed to do now. Deciding to try the door, he was surprised to find that it opened easily. He was equally surprised to find Captain Markul on the other side, frozen in the motion of putting a ring of keys back on his belt.
Quickly recovering himself, the fox glared at him. “Good, you’re awake and dressed. Did you get the note?”
“No.” Colan replied, which was true, he didn’t “get” any of the note, he couldn’t read.
“Well it told you to eat and get dressed and you seem to have done those things.” The fox beckoned impatiently as he strode off down the hall. “Follow me, his Majesty is up now and it’s time to present you to your new masters.”
“Masters?” Colan caught up to him, dropping a step behind. “I thought each slave was assigned to one of the royal family.”
Markul rounded on him, slamming Colan against the stone wall of the hallway. “Yore very inquisitive aren’t you?” His voice had a dangerous edge to it. “Well, I don’t have the time, nor patience for the questions of a slave. I will answer this last question, because I don’t want you looking like a absolute fool like the last batch, it reflects badly on me.”
Markul released him, and Colan pulled away from the wall, fighting to keep the pain he was in from showing. He knew his back must be bleeding by now, and he desperately hoped that the bandages would staunch the flow. The fox continued on without looking back. “Your masters will be the King and one of the Princes. The King is your master because he is King, but you will mainly be answerable to one of the Princes.” They stopped by a large wooden door, intricately engraved. Gold doorhandles gleamed in the flickering light thrown by the torches on either side of the door. Captain Markul placed a paw on the doorhandle, then paused. “One more thing. If you value your life, always obey the king first, then your other master.” He read the though unspoken in Colan’s eyes. “I’m not trying to be nice.” He snarled, “I’m trying to save my hide and put off going through this again for as long as possible.” With that, he opened the doors.
Sunlight blazed in through the high eastern window, throwing the figures on the four thrones in front of it into shadow. Colan squinted and raised a paw to shield his eyes, suddenly realizing that the time had been set on purpose to blind him. Walking forward, they passed out of the brilliance and Colan was able to recognize the figures on the thrones. Noticing the three other creatures standing before the thrones, he took his place with his family.
As Colan came to a stop, the King waved a paw, dismissing everybeast except the four slaves. King Alcon surveyed them, pondering his son’s choice. Sizing up each of them, he said. “My sons have both chosen you and your family to be our servants. You would do well to prove their choices valid.” Then he launched into an explanation of their duties. “You will be assigned to one of us as your master. From now on, your sole duty will be to wait on your master. You will attend him wherever he goes and wait on him during mealtimes. Do this well, and you will live in luxury for the rest of your life. Fail…” He grinned at Alspur, who returned the smile, fingering the greatsword at his side. “and we can always arrange an execution or sparring accident.”
“Now.” He said, turning his attention back to the slave before him. “I still don’t know your names, which isn’t a good thing when you’ll be in the constant attendance of my family. You,” he said, pointing at Athuran. “Tell me your name, what your duties were before I selected you, and then introduce the rest of your family.”
The older otter nodded and began. “Yore Majesty, my name is Athuran, and I have been a fisherbeast all my life.” Gesturing to Azure, he continued. “This is my wife, Azure. She was mainly assigned to make clothes for other slaves, but every once in awhile she would be pulled to make clothes for your majesty’s soldiers.” Moving down the line, he continued on. ‘this is my eldest son, Runtha. He worked beside me as a fisherbeast and always brought in a good haul.” Lastly, he finished with Colan. “This is my other son, Colan. He was a diver until today. He worked out of the rim, and, as far as I know, retrieves a good haul regularly.” Athuran finished and fell silent, waiting for the King to continue.
After a moment’s pause, the King resumed. “Athuran, you will attend to me. Azure you will attend to her Majesty.” Azure nodded in recognition to both the King and Queen. “Runtha, you will attend to Prince Alspur.” Runtha straightened up slightly and nodded his acknowledgement. “Colan, you will attend to Prince Torrin.”
As soon as the last word had passed his father’s lips, Alspur sprang from his seat. “Well, that’s over with. I’m late for practice as it is.” With that he strode toward the door. Runtha took a step forward, then halted, glancing uncertainly at the King. Alspur stopped at the door and looked back; paw tapping impatiently on the hilt of his sword as he stared at Runtha. The otter was frozen halfway between the Prince and the King, unsure if he was supposed to leave or not.
Alcon nodded thoughtfully, “Aye, we’d better lay down the rule here and now.” Addressing all the slaves, he continued. “You are assigned one of us, and when I tell you not to leave your master, I mean it. If he throws himself off the battlements of the palace, I expect you to follow him.”
Runtha nodded and hurried over to Prince Alspur, who turned and left. Torrin rose and, motioning for Colan to follow, he left as well. As Colan passed his mother, she brushed his paw. His head swiveled to catch her eyes as he continued to walk forward. A lump rose in his throat as he saw the fear and concern in her eyes, mirroring the fear in his own heart. How long could they last in constant attendance with their rulers, where one wrong word could spell death? “Be careful.” She mouthed. Colan nodded slightly, then hurried off to catch up to Torrin, who was nearly at the door.
They walked in silence, Prince Torrin leading the way, but Colan didn’t mind the silence. It gave him the opportunity to look around the gigantic hallways and corridors that they passed through, memorizing the twists and turns of the Palace that prince Torrin so effortlessly navigated. The excess wealth of generation of mining and cheap labor were evident here, from the gilded carvings on the walls to the intricately woven rugs laid across the polished stone floor. A few rooms were lit by large window, some closed, others open to let in the fresh sea breezes. But as they ventured farther into the palace, the windows became non-existent, and torches provided the main source of light.
Coming to a door, Torrin opened it and entered. Colan followed him, finding himself on a spiral staircase made of stone, winding both up and down. He followed the prince up, his footpaws padding on the rough stone. Exiting at the next door, they re-entered the maze of rooms and corridors on the second floor. There were slaves cleaning a few of the rooms they passed through, who looked up as they entered, glared at Colan, then dropped back to their work of scrubbing the floors or polishing woodwork. Soon Torrin’s twisting and turning brought them to another staircase, this one broad and straight, and as they ascended, Colan began to wonder if all these twists and turns were needed, or if the Prince was just trying to get him lost.
As they entered anther gigantic room, an old mousewife entered from the opposite side of the room. She began cleaning, and Colan looked around. A large fireplace dominated one wall, cold now, but with the ashes of its last fire still scattered over the hearth. There was enough seating for a score of beasts, but only four chairs were pulled close to the hearth. Colan guessed that the King occupied this room with his family during the winter, but it was only a guess. I’ll find out if I’m right when winter comes around, if I’m still around that is.
A sudden movement caught his eyes. A sculpture of a ferret with a drawn sword, inlaid with countless tiny gems, was teetering on the edge of an oak table. The old mouse was scrubbing the floor dangerously close to the table, her back to it. As she scooted back to get a spot, she bumped into the table leg, sending the sculpture tumbling towards the floor. Prince Torrin made a leap for it, but it smashed to the floor just beyond his outstretched paws, breaking into a thousand pieces.
As Torrin picked himself up off the stone, the mousewife attached herself to his leg. “Oh please, your Lordship!” She sobbed in terror, “Forgive my clumsiness! Forgive me, I beg you!”
Prince Torrin crouched down and gently disengaged himself from the old mouse. Staring into her panic-stricken eyes, he patted her soothingly. “Stay calm; you might bring guards running withy all that shouting. Clean it up and nobeast will notice the difference. If they do, tell them that I bumped into the table and broke it. If they don’t believe you, tell them to come talk to me.” She opened her mouth to pour out a torrent of thanks, but the Prince held a paw to his lips. “Shh,” he said, “I’m the one that knocked it over remember? It had nothing to do with you.”
She nodded furiously and began to pick up the pieces as Torrin rose and walked passed her. Colan followed, noticing the tears of relief that fell from the old mouse’s eyes. Soon she was hidden behind the door she had come from. After padding down a few more corridors, they came to a locked door. Torrin pulled a key out of his pocket and inserted it in the lock. With a soft click the door opened, leading to a spacious room behind. Torrin motioned Colan through and shut the door, the lock clicking into place. The Prince turned and looked him straight in the eyes. Colan took a step backwards, those emerald eyes were blazing with the truth of the words being spoken.
“If you are like that last slave and run to tell my father every little thing I do, I swear to you on the stars in the sky and the sea on the horizon that I will make you scream long and loud for your tale-telling.”
Colan looked into those blazing emerald orbs and knew with a certainty that he had never felt before that Torrin would keep his oath. “I won’t tell.” He replied, “Why would I?”
Torrin walked over and stared out the window at the distant blue of the sparkling sea. “The last slave did. Anything to get an extra loaf of bread or a drop of beer. They enjoyed it here; they got me in trouble a lot.”
Colan ventured a question, wondering if he was pushing his liberties too far. “if they like it here so much, why did they try to kill his Majesty?”
Torrin gave a mirthless laugh, “They didn’t. Alspur wasn’t happy with his slave, a thin mouse more suited for cartography than carrying swords. In fact, he drew the map my father uses to plan out crops and patrol routes.” Bringing himself back to the subject, he continued. “Anyway, as I said, Alspur wasn’t happy with the slave he had, so he planted a poisoned dagger underneath Father’s slave’s bed. A guard found it just before his Majesty retired and accused the entire family of a plot to kill the King. Alspur no doubt bribed him.”
Colan’s jaw dropped and his heart sank. So this is how easy you can die. He thought. You displease me, now die, simple as that.
Torrin turned from the window. “Well, I suppose I should show you around my quarters.” He gestured around the room they were currently in. “This is basically where I sit when I’m in here. The only way out of my quarters is by that door.” He pointed to the door they had entered by. “Well,” he said as an afterthought, “you could go through the food shaft over there.” He said, pointing through a door in an adjacent room. “But it’d be cramped.”
For the next few minutes Colan was led through a flurry of rooms, most of which, Torrin admitted, were just for show and had no particular purpose. A few had a purpose, such as a bare room containing a handful of wooden practice dummies, notched from use. There was even a special one where somebeast could control it and block the opponent’s attacks. In another locked room was the Prince’s armory. Weapons of all kinds hung along the walls and on racks scattered throughout the room. Bows of all types, from maple shorbows to yew longbows hung on one wall, barrels of arrows lining the base of the wall. On another hung a suit of plate mail and another of lighter chain mail.
“You have enough weapons here to outfit an army.” Commented Colan. He was quickly learning that, unlike Markul, Prince Torrin didn’t mind his numerous question and comments. “They look well-made too.” He added, running a paw over a deadly-looking axehead.
Torrin grinned, he was beginning to feel at ease with the otter. “Alspur has twice as much.” Walking over to a rack of swords, he selected a saber in a plain sheath. Gripping the hilt, he drew it swiftly, the ring of steel sounding clear and true in the spacious armory. Even with his untrained eyes, Colan could tell that this saber was of superior craftsmanship, better than any other blade present. Torrin swung, the double-edged saber thrumming as it cut through the air. “This is the blade I usually use.” Torrin said, looking at his reflection on the flat of the blade. My uncle gave two of these to me, and he also gave Alspur his greatsword. He looted them from a patrol of hares he killed at the mouth of the river Moss in the east. He said that during the middle of the battle he doubted he’d win, but his crew pulled through. The weapons made the battle worth the trouble. Badger-made they are, light, strong, and not easily notched or broken.” Sliding it back into the sheath, he turned to leave. “C’mon, we’re almost finished.”
Opening the last door, they entered a circular room. To the left, a spiral staircase began and curved to the right, upwards and out of sight. A window looked out on the sea at the horizon, and Colan realized that the Prince’s entire seet of rooms must be on the south corner of the palace.
“This is where you will sleep.” Said Torrin, indicating a cot under the window. “There’s a cord I can pull if I need you, it’ll ring this bell.” He indicated a bell over the doorway. “now or upstairs.” He turned and sprinted up the stairs, Colan struggling to keep up, he wasn’t used to navigating staircases. It seemed to him that the longer Prince Torrin stayed separate from other kin, guards, and slaves, the “Prince” part of him faded and he became more like the other slaves he knew during a free day. Colan found himself regretting that the difference of birth had separated them. Then a thought came to him: Does it? Does the fact that he is a Prince and I am a slave matter when we spend so much time together? He’d have to think on that one.
“This is my room.” Torrin said as they emerged from the stairwell. The bare stone floor was clean and uncluttered, and a large bed stood against the wall. The room was large, curving in a circle. Colan, curious why the room was shaped strangely, looked out one of the many windows, pulling his head back at the dizzying drop. So we’re at the top on one of the towers. He thought, looking out again. Glancing around the room, he noticed a desk and a stack of books beside it. Torrin followed his gaze.
“Those were found in a cave on the mountain situated at the north end of the island.” He picked on up and carefully paged through it, the stiff pages crinkling as they bent. “Alspur doesn’t believe it, but there is power in writing and reading. Same goes for history, everybeast is told that my family had ruled here since the beginning of time, but these books say differently. Records, they are, of those who lived here before we arrived. My father ordered these books burned, but I replaced them with some other books.” He laughed, “They couldn’t tell the difference.” Torrin shook his head. “We’ve only been royalty for a few generations according to these records. It’s amazing what this place was before we came. The mines dug by moles supplied many creatures with iron and other metals for their forges, mainly Salamandastron and a place called the Green Isle. Mice and other beasts from a place called Redwall traveled here, bringing with them great tales, recipes, and kindness. Many of their stories are written in these books. The more I read them, the more I realize what we’ve destroyed, more than just the lives of those living here.”
“Then why don’t you do something about it?” Asked Colan. “Surely as a Prince there is something you can do.”
Torrin shook his head. “No, I am the only beast, apart from the slaves, who thinks like this. If I tried to do something, the King wouldn’t hesitate to order me killed, and if he did, either the queen would poison me or Alspur would kill me in a training accident. What good would it do me anyway, even if I set the slaves free and destroyed the army’s stranglehold on this island? I am the son of the tyrant, nobeast would accept me, I would be and outcast, hunted by both vermin and former slaves. No.” He shook his head. “It is better for me to remain quiet about my ideas and live my life in peace.”
Colan pushed on his master’s walls of how for he would go. “But shouldn’t you do what is right”
“Right?” Torrin laughed, “What is right? What is wrong? I haven’t heard of anybeast with the authority to say what is good or bad. No, it’s left up to everybeast to decide for themselves isn’t it? But that leads to creatures doing good in their own eyes and bad in the eyes of somebeast else. Somebeast decides killing is fine to do, and who can say with any authority that he’s wrong?”
“I don’t think you believe what you’re saying.” Colan placed his paws on his belt, and touched something with a familiar feel. His knife. Somehow everybeast had missed it in his belt, the only think from his old life that he still possessed. Turning his back to Torrin, he pulled off his tunic, exposing the bandages. Drawing his knife, he sliced through them, freeing them to fall away from his wounds. In a chocked voice he asked the Prince. “How can this be good? Whipped, beaten nearly to death, I was lucky. I came here the next day instead of having to go back to work. Others don’t have that break. Back they go the next day, possibly receiving another whipping to break the scabs of the previous one, and the half-healed welts of the one before that. You may not live or live well, but wouldn’t you feel better as you walk toward the gates of the dark forest knowing that you tried?”
Torrin stared at the cracked scabs covering the otter’s back, blood oozing from some. Shame washed over him. As much as he tried to deny it, he knew what was right. It just wasn’t the comfortable, or logical thing to do. “I’ll think on it.” He said, but first you need something on that back.”
Colan followed the prince mutely, wondering if he had gone too far. But the direction the prince was traveling reassured him. Heading into one of the smallest rooms, Torrin looked around at the rows of shelves thoughtfully. “Uh-huh.” He said, lifting a jar from the top shelf. “This should help.” Grabbing a roll of bandages, he pointed to a stool. “Sit.”
As Colan sat down he opened the jar. Immediately the small room filled with an overpowering stench. “What’s in that?” Asked Colan, coughing.
Torrin wrinkled his nose as well. “Yarrow, but the stuff that stinks is whatever the mouse in charge of medicines used to make it into a cream, smells like rotten fish though.”
Colan sat while Torrin smeared the evil-smelling cream on. “You get good at putting this stuff on when you practice with swords.” He commented as he finished up. He reached for the roll of bandages, then paused. “No, better let the wounds air as long as we can. I’ll put the bandage on before we go down for dinner.” Colan reached for his tunic, but Torrin caught his paw. “Like I said, let it air. C’mon, I know where we can sit and talk.”
“Really?” Muttered Colan as they exited the room. “With all these chairs, I can’t imagine where we can sit.”
Torrin lounged in a large chair while Colan sat on a footstool, careful to keep his back from touching anything. “I like you.” Said Torrin, studying Colan. “You’re not like the other slaves I’ve known, they always call me “Prince”, “Lordship”, or “Sir” even when we’re alone. You speak your mind, and you’ve already cracked a joke. You should know though, outside my rooms you’ll have to address me with all the titles I’ve mentioned. The King wouldn’t be happy if he though you were getting g too familiar with me.”
“Yeah,” said Colan, “Markul didn’t seem to like me being familiar enough to ask any questions at all.”
Torrin waggled a paw at him. “Don’t let him intimidate you. The only creatures that can order you about now are me and my father.” Torrin clapped a paw to his head. “With our debate upstairs I completely forgot. We missed the top of the tower.”
So one again they went up to Torrin’s bedroom, the ferret slowing his pace now that he knew of Colan’s injuries. The otter moved as fast as he could comfortably, he wasn’t sure how long this kindness could last. As he stepped onto the level floor of the tower room Colan looked around for another staircase, but saw none. Prince Torrin strode across the room and, to Colan’s amazement, began climbing up the wall. Of course, he thought, a trapdoor. Mentally berating himself for now thinking of this, he began to climb the ladder that stuck out of the stone.
The view from the top of the tower was magnificent. Colan felt he knew now what a bird must see, winging its way high above the heads of everybeast else. The guards in the courtyard below resembled ants to Colan. Beyond the walls, the vast fields rolled off in all directions, only bordered by the sea to the south and west, and the forest to the north. In the east, Colan could see the smoke from the port, lifting up and dispersing in the cloudless blue sky.
“Sometimes I sleep up here at night.” Torrin said. “Mostly when I wanted to be away from the prying eyes of my last slave. It’s peaceful up here some nights, although when the wind blows right I can hear the drunken brawling of the soldiers in the streets of the town below.” Torrin started as he glanced at the sun. “It’s nearly dinnertime; soon we’ll have to put that bandage and your tunic on. You’ll have to wait on me at the table, and I’ll have to order you, to keep up appearances. Maybe I’ll slip a few in as requests later so they’ll get used to it slowly.”
Colan nodded, not quite sure what the Prince was talking about, and looked at the sparking sea for a moment. Squaring his shoulders, he followed Torrin down the ladder.
Runtha reeled back, his head throbbing from this last blow. Alspur followed his attack up, knocking Runtha over with a kick to the chest. Thrusting his heavy wooden greatsword into the grass beside the otter’s head, he looked at Runtha contemptuously.
“Yew better get good quick, riverdog. I’m not gonna practice with these toys forever, and when we switch over ya better be ready. They’ll be dulled, but yew’ll get some broken bones if yer not quick enough.
“Yes, yore Lordship.” Said Runtha as he struggled to his feet, already beginning to wince from the bruise forming on his head, along with the scores of others he had acquired over the past few hours.
Alspur shoved him down again, placing a footpaw on the otter’s chest to keep him down. Drawing a sword at his waist—his real one—he rested the tip lightly against Runtha’s throat. “Lordship…” he mused. “No, the soldiers call me that, and you’re a slave, even if you’re my personal one.” He thought for a moment more, watching with malicious pleasure as Runtha shifted uneasily underneath his footpaw, eyeing the blade. “You may call me master, but nothing else.” He tickled Runtha’s throat, “Understood?”
Runtha’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Yes, Master.”
“Good.” The Prince let him get up. “Now Barzkul, I think it’s time for our mock battle. You may use Runtha as you wish, but I almost think he might be a hindrance.”
“Very good, Lord. Slave, over here!” Runtha jogged over to the weapons master, eyeing him cautiously. Barzkul gestured impatiently, “Come on, I’m not going to beat you.” Runtha came closer. “Yet.” Barzkul muttered, annoyed that the prince had given him such incompetent help. Usually he selected a guard from his post at the gate, put now he had a useless slave. A rock would’ve been better; at least he could throw it. “This is what yer gonna do.” He growled at Runtha. “You obviously can’t handle a sword, so go to the armory and get a bow an’ a quiver of practice arrows.” He grabbed Runtha’s shoulder as e turned to leave. “Mind they’re practice arrows, riverdog. You wouldn’t want to shoot tipped ones at his Lordship.”
Runtha nodded and raced off. He wondered if this position was worth the pain, then the thought of the warm bread came back to him. Bruises were a small price to pay for such food, and he’d eventually learn to block his master’s attacks so he wouldn’t have as many of them.
Against the north wall of the palace was the armory. It wasn’t the full armory—that was in the courtyard of the palace—it was the practice armory. Mostly used by the princes for their weapons training, it was adjacent to the practice field.
A guard stood at the door. He leered as Runtha approached. Even though the guard was a full two heads shorter than him, his armor and arrogant confidence made Runtha feel small in comparison.
“Git back to yer job.” Snarled the rat as Runtha approached.
“I am doing my job.” Runtha replied.
“Ha.” The guard put a paw on his sword. “Slaves aren’t allowed in the armory, or any weapon storage area for that matter.”
Runtha glanced over his shoulder. He could see Alspur and Barzkul getting impatient. He turned back to the guard. “Weapons master Barzkul gave me permission.”
The guard laughed. “Yer a stubborn one. Well get this into yet thick ‘ead. Yew aren’t gonna git in ‘ere. So you can leave now.”
Runtha turned away. “I’ll get my Master, the Prince, and the weapons master, I’m sure they’ll be glad to change yore mind.”
The rat started. “Yer the Prince’s slave?” He hurridly opened the door. “Get what yew need, and that argument didn’t ‘appen, right?”
Runtha walked past him. “It may slip my mind, but ya never know.” He selected a bow and a quiver of arrows, their tips swathed in cloth. As he passed out the door, the guard passed him a flagon, “Will that help you forget.”
Runtha tucked it inside his tunic. “It will.”
“What took you so long?” demanded Alspur.
Runtha bowed his head. “Forgive me Master, I couldn’t find the practice arrows.”
Alspur rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Take up starting positons!”
As Barzkul faced the Prince, broadsword at ready, Runtha circled around behind him. At a signal from Alspur, they began. Runtha knocked an arrow, patiently waiting for them to separate so he could get a shot in. Only then did he notice that they had swapped out their wooden swords for real ones, albeit blunted. Barzkul locked hilts with Alspur, then pushed the Prince away, stepping back as he did so. Realizing that he wouldn’t get a chance like this again very soon, Runtha drew hastily and let fly.
As soon as the arrow left the bow, Runtha could see that he was off target. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but the arrow was too fast. It struck the weapons master in the chest, winding him. Alspur, seeing that his one adversary had been “killed” turned and rushed Runtha. The otter fumbled frantically with the next arrow, but he never got it knocked. Alspur bowled into him, knocking him back a full five feet and sending the bow flying, no easy feat as Runtha was heavy-built.
“It seems that I have set a new record for beating you, Barzkul.” Said Alspur, leaning on his sword and watching Runtha roll over and push himself up. “Thanks to Runtha here.”
Barzkul was furious. Not only had he lost, he had been expecting to, but he had been beaten by a slave. Ripping a whip from his belt, he stormed forward and slashed viciously across Runtha’s back. The otter yelled, more in surprise than pain, and began to move away as fast a possible as Barzkul drew back for another blow.
Alspur was quicker though. He knocked Barzkul down and knelt on his chest, dagger drawn, toying with the fox’s whiskers. “Have we forgotten already?” hissed the ferret. “The only beast allowed to damage my property is me. No matter what he does to yew, yew have no right to harm ‘im. Only I may do that. Next time yew violate my right it will cost yew part of yer ear.” He stood up. “Practice is over for today, time for dinner.” He made his way towards the palace, Runtha following close behind, storing the memory safely away. That information would come in handy.
Athuran surveyed his sons from where he stood, slightly behind the king’s left paw. They looked well, but for Colan that wouldn’t have been hard. In his eyes Athuran could see a wary nervousness, as if Colan was unwilling to trust himself. Runtha seemed more at ease, or at least resigned. I occurred to him that Runtha hadn’t seemed startled when the guards swept into the hut last night. It was like he knew they were coming…he’d have to think on that.
The King drained his goblet, motioning to him after he set it down. Athuran stepped forward, filling the goblet with fresh, dark wine. Well, he thought as he stepped back, resuming his position, it’ll do Azure good to see our children at mealtimes at least.
He glanced over his sons again. Runtha looked like he had already become accustomed to his position, his back straight and head up, but quickly transferring his gaze to the floor when any of the royal family looked at him. Colan seemed more unsure, sometimes meeting Prince Torrin’s eyes, and at other times looking at the floor. Torrin finished his goblet and set it down, motioning for Colan, but the otter was busy surveying the table and didn’t notice. Torrin made a pretext of looking down the side of the table to glance at Colan. Seeing the otter lost n wonder at the various dishes, he slid a paw below the rim of the table. A sharp snap sounded, and Colan looked at the prince, startled. The ferret motioned him forward and whispered something to him. Colan whispered back, and Torrin rolled his eyes. Turning, he pointed at a row of barrels against the wall, whispering something else. Colan nodded, took the goblet from the prince’s paw, and filled it from one of the casks. After bringing it back to his master, he returned to his original position.
I really have to talk to him. Athuran thought, This job isn’t any different from what he’s been doing his whole life, obey your master.
Colan stared in wonder at the food. It wasn’t so much the quantity that stunned him—it took a lot to feed the hundreds of slaves in the compound—it was the quality. Meats, pies, soups, stews, salads, rolls, turnovers, and baskets of various fruits and berries. None of the food was the least bit moldy or spoiled. Besides that, they ate on plates with forks. Colan had never seen a fork used before, none of the slaves owned any, the guards had said they could be used as weapons. And the plates they used…they were either made from gold or were gold-plated, along with the forks and other utensils and the goblets as well. They sat at a long table that could accommodate a score, but only the royal family was eating, with Colan’s family attending. King Alcon sat at one end of the table, his wife occupying the other. The princes sat halfway down each side, Alspur on the King’s right and Torrin on his left. Torrin had told him that this table was used for family-only dinners, and that they had a banquet hall for larger gatherings and such.
A snap startled him out of his amazement, and he started forward sheepishly as he saw Prince Torrin beckoning to him. Stepping forward he bent over to catch Torrin’s whisper.
“Get me some cider, they’re labeled. And pay attention or I’ll have to have you whipped.”
Colan hesitated. “I can’t read.” He whispered.
Torrin sighed and rolled his eyes. “Good thing my teacher is coming tomorrow.” He muttered. Turning in his seat, he pointed to the row of barrels on the wall. “It’s the second one down from the King’s side of the table.”
Colan nodded and completed his task. As he waited for the goblet to fill he took a look at the label. It looked like random scratches to him, but maybe somebeast who was very smart could teach him.
After the King had finished eating, he and his family retired to another room while their personal slaves ate their fill of the leftovers. Azure delayed their starting as she insisted on asking how they all were. Runtha brushed her off, groaning that he was hungry and she had just seen him that morning. Then they tucked in, indulging in food they had never tasted before, and quality that they had hardly dreamed of. After they had eaten their fill, Athuran drew Colan aside.
“Listen, Colan.” He said. “They may go easy on us for the first few days, but don’t expect it to last. They’ll clamp down and they may be worse than anybeast we’ve had to deal with before. Y’ never know.”
Colan nodded as Torrin came in. “I’ll remember, Father.”
After dinner was finished, while they were walking back to their rooms, Colan asked. “Are your dinners always so quiet?”
“Sometimes.” Torrin replied. “One of the rules is that the king must start the conversation, so if Father doesn’t feel like talking, we don’t talk.”
“Oh.” Said Colan, and nothing else was said through the rest of their walk.
As they entered the Prince’s quarters, Torrin began speaking again, more to himself than Colan. “I usually read after dinner but that would leave you with nothing to do on your first evening.” He paused as a though came to him. “Should I?” he shrugged. “Why not? You’ll probably be included eventually, come on.” It took Colan a moment to realize that this last sentence was directed at him. Hurrying after Torrin, he followed the Prince to the armory.
Colan watched, mystified, as Torrin walked to the sword wall and took down the two Salamandastron sabers. Drawing both of them, he swung them experimentally.
“I tried to learn to wield both of them, but not much luck.” He admitted. “I think I’m one-of-a kind. My right paw is my writing paw, but I use my left for swordplay.” He smiled, “Strange, isn’t it?”
Colan shrugged “I dunno, I haven’t talked to many swordbeasts.” Torrin raised an eyebrow. “On, I speak to swordbeasts.” Colan assured him. “But I don’t talk. It’s really just “yes sir” or “no sir.” And that can’t be called talking.”
“Oh.” Said Torrin as he sheathed his left-paw sword. Reversing his grip on the remaining blade, he held the hilt out to Colan.
Colan’s gaze darted between the swordhilt and the ferret warily. Slowly he stretched out his paw and grasped the leather-bound hilt. Torrin released the blade, and the tip dipped momentarily as Colan adjusted to the weight. It was heavy, but balanced so expertly that the weight was more a joy than a burden. He looked from the blade to the prince, confused.
“Why are you giving me this?” He raised the blade and pointed it at the prince. “I could kill you, and though I would die, in the eyes of every slave I would die a martyr. I might even be able to bluff my way out of the palace, since you died in a room only you are allowed in. Tell me, why do you think that I won’t take advantage of the situation and kill you?”
Torrin held his ground, his emerald eyes searching Colan’s with their piercing gaze. “I don’t think you’ll kill me, he said slowly, “because you’re not sure what to make of me. All your life you’ve been beaten, questions were forbidden, and your mind was not your own. Then you are plucked from the ranks and you land here. All of a sudden you have somebeast that is, by rule, your master, but asking you questions and letting you think with your own mind. And frankly,” he leaned back against the wall, “you don’t trust me. You’re every right not to. Outside of woodlanders, nobeast has bothered to have an extended conversation with you.”
Torrin sighed, “Truth is, I don’t want another slave. I don’t want somebeast whose life I can extinguish with a single word. What I want,” he said suddenly, looking up, “is a friend, somebeast I can count on to tell me what they really think, not what I think.”
Colan lowered the saber and turned away. “Bad things happen to my friends.” He muttered. “First it was Derick, then it was Cetyl.”
“What happened?” asked Torrin.
“They died.” Said Colan flatly, obviously ending the subject.
“Oh…” Torrin looked out the window, he hadn’t thought of that. It hadn’t occurred to him that the slaves that were whipped were the friends of others. He knew slaves died, but he never really realized that the family and friends of the victim would feel something. Changing topics, he said, “It’s getting late and I’m going bed. It’s gonna be a tiring day tomorrow for you, ‘cause I have sword practice with the weapons master and my teacher comes after that, but I’ll postpone my own studies so we can teach you to read.” He began walking towards his room. “You can keep the saber by your bed if you want, it’s yours now.”
Later, Colan lay on his cot and stared at the ceiling, thinking. It had been one of the most confusing days of his life, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was on the edge of something as great as one of the tales Sanem told of the abbey he came from.
He only hoped that he wouldn’t end up like the otter in the last full tale he had heard, the one by the name of Shogg.