So, I’ve decided to work on this story again as a back burner project, meaning I’ll get to it when I can, but it’s likely to be neglected for long stretches as I focus on other projects. I’m not even going to advertise that I’m working on it, so if you’ve found it, lucky you. 🙂
If you’ve read this page before, you’ll realize I’ve taken down chapter 6.1 and instead posted this prologue. I’ll eventually get around to posting chapter 6 again, but only after I’ve posted all of the other chapters in between. And they all need a serious rewrite, so it might take a while.
Warning: This story is predominantly hetero. I’ll tell you right off that Keven and Rees never get it on. In fact, they both fall in love with women during the course of this story, so if you are male/male exclusive, you probably won’t want to read this, although there are a few chapters that you might like. Once I post them, I’ll update this comment so you’ll know which ones to read (or which ones to avoid if you’re hetero exclusive).
Bigger Warning: If you thought Rough Boys was brutal, it’s tame compared to this story. This is one of the first stories I ever wrote and, for reasons that escape me, it is full of torture and rape. I don’t think I’ll ever publish this for money; I can’t imagine there is much of a market for it. But I do like the story enough to finish it and I may incorporate threads of it into something else I’m writing.
So read this story at your own discretion. It is beyond edgy.
I’d love to hear what you think of it. The more positive comments I get, the more time I’ll spend working on it. If everyone hates it, I reserve the right to abandon it.
Table of Contents
Pain blurred Keven’s vision. He sucked in air through clenched teeth with a low hiss and yanked hard on the reins, pulling his horse to a sharp halt at the side of the narrow trail. Noble tossed his head and half-reared. Keven tightened his thighs around his mount to hold his seat while his hands fumbled frantically with the buttons of his jacket. He caught a whiff of burnt hair and flesh, a convincing sign that the excruciating pain he felt on his chest was real. His amulet had been warm all morning. Now, suddenly, it was blazing hot, searing his skin.
Slipping his hands under the neck of his muslin shirt, he caught the chain and tugged, pulling the medallion out above the loose collar.
The gold disk fit easily into his palm, but he held it gingerly by the edges. In the center of the medallion, the normally smooth, black stone glowed a fiery red. Imprinted in the precious metal surrounding the stone were designs and runes of unknown origin, also now glowing faintly.
What the hell? He’d never seen it alive with its own light before.
“What is it, sire?” Captain Lenar, immediately aware of anything amiss, whirled his horse around to ascertain why Prince Keven was no longer directly behind him. All of the other men in their small party were strung out in a line behind Keven, watching curiously.
Just then the world of dense forest, soldiers, and horses dropped away. Keven found himself in the middle of a battlefield. Noble was on the blood-red ground at his feet, life gushing from a massive wound to his neck. Keven twisted frantically, parrying a swift blade that hungered for his belly. He bled already from a dozen small wounds. Pressing forward, his sword flashed furiously. His mind was numb, his actions driven by years of training. He found an opening under a repost and slid his blade cleanly into his opponent’s liver. That’s when he heard the whistle of a swift, sure blade slicing through the air right behind him.
He spun to ward off this new attack, but it was too late. The steel blade bit deeply into his neck and he saw his red blood spurt out before him in a great, pulsing torrent. He seemed to drop into a strange state where every second lasted a minute. He had time for the memories of a lifetime to flash through his mind. His happiest moments and biggest triumphs were right there along with his greatest sorrows and humiliations. He had time for a sharp regret that he hadn’t done more with his young life. He couldn’t control his head as it lolled to the side. The amount of blood spraying out of wound was staggering. He swayed for a few interminable moments before his knees started to crumple. The world went black as he fell.
He grabbed the pommel of his saddle to keep from going down. His vision cleared and he was in the forest once more with his small band of men. Lenar was beside him, reaching for him. The captain grabbed his arm to steady him.
He took a deep breath and met Captain Lenar’s gaze. He wasn’t sure what the expression on his own face was, but he saw fear flicker in the captain’s eyes—something he’d never seen before.
“Sire! Are you ill?”
Keven felt dizzy. He took a quick inventory of himself and Noble. They were unscathed. He pulled in a deep breath to steady himself. “I just saw my own death,” he whispered.
Lenar looked aghast for the briefest instant. His gaze shifted to the amulet Keven still held in his hand, and then his usual stern countenance returned.
“Take ten, men!” he called out to the group of gawkers behind them. “Water yourselves and your horses.” The trail tracked next to a stream.
Keven pulled the chain over his head and slipped the medallion into his breast pocket where he could still feel its heat, but it wouldn’t sear his skin. He hoped it wouldn’t singe his jacket. He noticed his hands were shaking. He quickly dismounted and pulled his water bladder off his saddle, taking a long pull.
Captain Lenar dismounted as well and stepped close to speak into his ear.
“Your amulet’s glowing. Has it done that before?”
“It burned me!” Keven said quietly, pulling the laces of his shirt apart so he could assess the damage. A perfectly-round, angry, red mark was seared into the skin on his chest. “I’ve never seen it glowing before, but lately sometimes it gets warm—usually when we’re fighting. For a long time I thought it was just my overheated body making the amulet seem hot, but a few weeks ago I realized that it generates heat on its own. It’s never gotten hot enough to burn me—before now.”
“And the vision? You looked like you were in a trance for a few seconds and then you almost passed out. You’re still pale. Have you had visions before?”
“No, never. It was so real! It seemed like I was there. I could feel my wounds. I could smell the blood!” Keven took a deep, unsteady breath. “Noble was dead.”
Captain Lenar put a comforting hand on his arm—something else he almost never did.
“I’ve heard of the existence of such things,” he said, nodding toward Keven’s pocket where the amulet was still pulsing with heat. “I didn’t really believe the stories. Now, however, I think we’d best heed its warning.”
He glanced around. “Quincy!” he called to a young man who was just returning up the small embankment leading his horse. “Your spare jacket—lend it to Commander Stenson.” Quincy was close to Keven’s medium height, but was broader of chest.
“But sir, it’s quite dirty.”
Lenar looked at Keven. “If we get captured…”
He did not need to finish his statement. Keven knew the stakes. The elegant embroidery on his jacket signified that he was a member of the royal family of Endora. Keven thought it laughable that he was a commander, technically in charge of their small party. He always deferred to Lenar. Keven was just twenty with barely a year’s service. Captain Lenar was over forty, and although Endora had only been at war for less than three years, there had been border skirmishes for decades. He had experience to back up his rank; Keven only had his bloodline.
Their small band had separated from the larger unit that morning when the fighting became fierce—much to Keven’s chagrin.
“Go for backup,” the field commander had told them. But Keven knew it didn’t take an armed party of twenty men to go for backup. Two men would be faster and less conspicuous. He had been furious at being sent away—was still angry. But he had followed orders without argument. He had learned that much during his time in the army.
The commander had insisted on not coddling him, and in most things he didn’t. As soon as my life was threatened, he sent me out of danger, Keven thought bitterly. Then he smiled to himself at the irony. He could still feel the heat of the amulet through his jacket; his life was in danger anyway.
Quincy produced a filthy, rumpled jacket that showed the rank of private. Keven accepted it without comment and disappeared between the trees to relieve himself and change.
He wrinkled his nose slightly as he donned the other man’s jacket, although it really wasn’t much dirtier than the one he’d just shed. It fit well, actually better than his own, which surprised him. He glanced down at his chest, noticing that the laces on his shirt didn’t close as tightly as they used to. He was bulking up. He was still on the thin side, but clearly his shoulders and chest had developed of late.
He rolled his jacket, with the amulet still in the pocket, into a compact bundle. If they were captured—or more likely killed, he thought—he didn’t want the amulet to fall into the hands of the enemy. He wasn’t sure what it was capable of, perhaps nothing more than heating up and sending visions, but even that was enough.
He looked around with a sense of urgency. He needed someplace to hide the amulet where no one else would find it, but he could locate it again when it was safe to retrieve it. He spotted a lone pine further up the hill. It stood by itself in a small clearing, as if shunned by its deciduous neighbors. The very top of the tree had broken off and the jagged edge stuck out in sharp relief against the blue sky.
He hurried up the hill, but it was slow going. It didn’t look far, but the underbrush was thick. He had to climb over downed trees, some of them taller than his waist. He ignored the brambles which tore at his clothing, pausing now and again to reorient himself with his goal. Finally, breathing heavily with the effort of the climb, he reached the tree. It was surrounded by snags and shrubs. He pushed through the brush until he stood at the roots of the great tree. He had hoped the trunk of the tree would be hollow, but his luck was not holding today. He found a short thick stick and began frantically digging underneath one of the large roots. It took several long minutes, but eventually he created a hollow that was big enough for his bundle, just barely.
He paused briefly, having second thoughts about abandoning his good luck charm. He could still feel it pulsing with heat through the jacket. The amulet had been in his mother’s family for generations. She had given it to him on his twelfth birthday, urging him to wear it for luck. He hadn’t believed the luck part, but he had liked it and had worn it on a chain around his neck ever since. It just felt right—as if it were a part of him. He wasn’t sure if his mother knew about its special qualities or not, but he planned to question her about it at first opportunity.
Thoughts of his mother slammed him back to the present. Will I ever see her again? Damn! I need to hurry!
He quickly stuffed the jacket-encased medallion under the root and buried it, packing the dirt down and covering it with needles and leaves. When he was done, he ran a critical eye around the area. Other than some broken branches that showed someone had been here, the jacket seemed well hidden.
He headed back down the hill at a breakneck pace, taking a slightly different route than he had on his ascent. He didn’t want to leave an obvious trail. The going was still slow and he knew he’d been gone much too long.
When he finally burst out of the woods onto the trail, he was dismayed to see that everyone was mounted, waiting for him. He hoped someone had watered Noble.
The Captain glared at him. Taking in his dirt-encrusted hands and sweaty face, he said nothing.
Keven leapt into his saddle and the company was just starting off when they heard a horseman coming at a fast pace down the trail toward them from the direction they were travelling. Lenar drew his sword, but quickly sheathed it as their scout came into view.
“Kenezian troops are coming down this trail. There are a lot of them. I couldn’t get a count in the forest, but I’d advise not going this way!”
“How far away are they?” Lenar asked calmly.
“No more than a mile.”
“Are there any branching trails in that direction?”
Captain Lenar whirled his horse. Everyone shifted their mounts to the side of the trail to let him by.
“We passed a side trail, about a mile back. We’ll take that. Prince Keven, ride in the middle of the group.”
Keven clenched his jaw to keep himself from arguing. He knew Captain Lenar’s motivations were in the best interest of their country, however, that knowledge didn’t stop anger from flaring in his breast. He hated getting special treatment because he was a prince. He followed Captain Lenar until he was approximately in the middle of the column. As he pulled his horse to a halt between two of his soldiers, his face grew hot with shame. He felt eyes upon him and carefully avoided meeting anyone’s gaze.
They started out again, heading east as quickly as they could manage on the overgrown trail. Shortly they came to the branching path. It was even narrower than the trail they’d been on, a barely discernable track between the close-growing trees.
Lenar paused at the point where the trails branched and motioned the soldiers to file past him. When Keven was abreast of him, he called the team to a halt.
“I think it might make the most sense to split the team—have some return to the battlefield and warn the others that there are more enemy troops coming from this direction. The rest of us will try our luck with this northern trail.” He lowered his voice and leaned in toward Keven. “I don’t think either group has a good chance for survival. We are seriously outnumbered. What are your thoughts?”
Keven was astounded that the Captain was asking for his advice. Technically, due to his rank, he was in command, but it was clear to everyone there that Lenar was the real leader. However, he felt the captain was asking his opinion because he actually wanted it, not because he felt it was required by protocol.
“Your reasoning is sound, sir.”
Lenar quickly divided the team, sending nine down the eastern trail with a sergeant in charge. The other twelve, including Keven, he kept with him to take the northern trail. Once again, he ordered Keven to a central position, but this time he took up the rear. Clearly he expected an attack from behind. Keven took a position that put only three men between himself and Lenar—not quite the middle, but the captain didn’t reprimand him.
As they rode down the trail, Keven could not keep his mind off the gruesome vision he’d seen of his own death. As long as I’m in the woods, I should be fine. Or, maybe the vision I saw was just one possible death. Suddenly he wished he hadn’t hidden his amulet—perhaps it would have given him an updated vision. That thought made him shudder. Holding that amulet while I’m in extreme danger could be a path to madness.
The northern trail was slow going for men on horseback. Low hanging tree branches caused them to duck often. Brambles and brush clawed at their legs as the horses pushed through on the narrow track. The sky overhead was rarely visible through the thick canopy of trees.
The late-autumn day was deceptively pleasant, the air redolent with the scent of rich earth. The weather had finally cooled to a tolerable daytime temperature, and winter rains had not yet come. Keven would have enjoyed the peacefulness of the woods around him if death did not seem so imminent.
He strained his senses for anything out of place. He was so observant that he noticed the forest was coming to an end almost before the men in the front of the line did. They pulled to a halt a good distance from the edge. It appeared that the trail led out onto open land. They were too far away for Keven to make out any details. The man in the front dismounted and crept forward to do reconnaissance. He came back a few minutes later, pale and obviously shaken.
He squeezed past the other soldiers, heading to the captain with a report of what he’d seen.
Keven jumped off his horse and followed him, abusing his rank. He wanted to hear what the soldier had to say.
“Captain!” the soldier began without waiting to be acknowledged. “The trail ends about five-hundred yards north. It opens up onto a vast meadow.” He looked around and lowered his volume, but the tone of his voice echoed the horror he had witnessed. “There is a huge battle raging … it appears to be almost over. We are defeated. There are very few left.”
Keven could not help his gasp of shock. He swallowed and quickly schooled his face to the impassive countenance he’d practiced for negotiations. The only indication Captain Lenar gave that this news was distressing was a slight tensing of the muscles in his neck.
“What is your estimate of the Kenezian force?”
“And the remaining Endorans?”
“Just a handful of men.” His voice broke in anguish. “They are still fighting bravely, sir.”
Keven’s swallowed. His first instinct was to rush boldly out onto the battlefield to bolster his countrymen’s dwindling ranks. He realized immediately how foolish that would be. Their best strategy at this point was to try to escape with their lives to fight another day.
“We should abandon our mounts and scatter into the forest. It would give a few of us a chance for survival,” Keven suggested.
“No. We’ll meet the force behind us.”
Keven had not expected his suggestion to be taken. The training was clear: abandoning your mount was the worst thing you could do in a combat situation. Keven thought that their circumstances were different from the norm, but he wouldn’t countermand the captain’s orders. He didn’t even argue. Captain Lenar surely knew better than he what to do at a time such as this.
Just then they heard the clop of horses’ hooves and the rustling of underbrush on the trail from the direction they’d just come. A large party was approaching quickly.
“Prince Keven, go to the far end of the line!” Lenar commanded.
Keven flinched at the order. There was not much that would save him at this point. Being at the far end of the group would make him suffer through everyone else’s death before he met his own. He quickly made his way back to his horse and mounted, but he made no move to retreat further.
The captain was too busy to notice. He had his hands full in a sword fight with the men behind him. The trail was too narrow for more than one man at a time, but as soon as he had taken one down, another stepped into his place.
Keven found a spot where he was able to pull his mount a little to the side of the trail. He quickly brought his bow to hand. He was one of the few men with arrows left. Normally he would not have used a bow and arrow in such dense woods, but he waited patiently until he had clear shots and began to take out the men behind Captain Lenar’s adversary one by one. The Captain was very skilled and dispatched the oncomers at an impressive rate. Soon, between Keven’s arrows and Lenar’s sword, they had killed or wounded fifteen or twenty of the enemy soldiers.
Some of the enemy dismounted to pull the bodies out of the way, giving the next mounted man an opportunity to meet Lenar in battle. Others, also on foot, fought their way through the brush on the side of the trail to come at Lenar from behind. Soon all of the men in the front of the line were engaged in battle with men on foot.
Keven swiftly stashed his bow and pulled out his sword just as a foot soldier swung a blade at his leg. Keven parried and was able to quickly find a weakness in the man’s defense, bringing him down.
Now men were pouring out the woods on both sides. Keven fought furiously, aware that his countrymen were falling around him, their panicked, riderless mounts adding to the melee.
Keven was skilled with a sword, having been trained by some of the best in the country from a young age. He had no problem quickly dispensing with his adversaries when they came at him one at a time, but when several managed to reach him at once, he was hard-pressed to defend himself. Soon he had multiple wounds, none of them serious.
Suddenly he found himself fighting a mounted man. He pulled back sharply on the reins causing Noble to rear up and take a few steps backwards. During this distraction, he peered past the horseman before him and saw that Captain Lenar had indeed gone down—was likely dead, as were the other men that had been between him and the front of the line.
He took a deep shuddering breath as grief pierced him sharply. He had known Lenar for many years. He had a great deal of respect for the man and liked him too, although he would not have described their relationship as friendship. He did not have time for sorrow, though. The battle raged around him and he was fully engaged with the swordsman before him who seemed to be a master.
Keven found himself forced back further and further as he tried in vain to find an opening in his opponent’s perfect defense. Occasionally someone would attack him from foot at his side. He was usually able to dispatch the foot soldiers quickly, but at the expense of another small wound to himself or to Noble.
Sweat stung his eyes and his arms became heavy with effort. Shortly after noticing that his captain had gone down, the realization struck him that he was truly in charge, and the number of men who were still on their mounts fighting was rapidly dwindling. Noble stepped around bodies which littered the trail. Keven’s gut twisted at the senseless deaths. Staying to fight such overwhelming odds was insanity.
As he continued to engage furiously with the swordsman before him, he called out in a loud voice to the men behind him. “Break away from the battle! Get free! Abandon your horses. Run into the woods.” It was their only chance.
He heard a scramble behind him as his men obeyed. One of them called to him, “Si—Sir, are you coming?”
“Yes, I’ll be right behind you. Go!”
But Keven wasn’t right behind them. He was being seriously pressed by the man before him and Noble was retreating backwards at a smart pace. Keven was now bleeding from a dozen small wounds and rapidly losing his concentration.
Without warning, they broke out of the trees onto a grim battlefield. Keven whirled Noble around, planning to take advantage of the open ground to flee.
The sight that met his eyes was one he would never forget. Thousands of men, both Endoran and Kenezian, lay dead or dying, their mangled bodies strewn across the field like human refuse. Hundreds of men were wandering among the war victims, all Kenezian. They were looking for fallen comrades, or maybe looking for treasures to steal from the dead, or perhaps they were just too dazed to find their way out of the nightmare.
Keven had no time to process the horror of the scene. An enemy soldier was directly in front of him, wielding a great broadsword with two hands. Even as Keven saw him, the Kenezian swung his sword and caught Noble at the base of his neck. His mount reared briefly and then went down.
Keven’s heart lodged in his throat as he realized his mount was mortally wounded. He managed to disengage from the stirrups and land on his feet, sword still in-hand, as Noble collapsed. His attention was on his horse. He had gotten Noble as a colt, a present for his fourteenth birthday—the best present he’d ever received. He was a magnificent creature and the boy and his horse had forged a strong bond.
The whites showed fully around Noble’s panicked eyes. Blood gushed at an alarming rate out of a great wound in his neck. He thrashed weakly a few times and stilled.
Oh my god! Noble!
Tears sprang into Keven’s eyes and he blinked rapidly, suddenly angry with himself as well as the world. I don’t have time for this shit! He wanted to throw his arms around the horse and say good-bye, but his peripheral vision caught sight of a sharp blade coming toward him. He twisted and parried and almost slid his sword into the man’s liver.
This is the vision!
As he realized this, he responded instantly, leaping forward, out of range of the great broadsword that was arcing toward his neck.
He whirled, taking a step backward to face both opponents, but the man whose liver he had almost skewered took advantage of his change in tactics to slide a blade into his belly. Keven gasped in shock as he saw the bright sword enter him and slide out, covered with his red blood. His sword dropped from nerveless fingers as his vision dimmed.
He dropped to his knees, his hands clutching his wound.
Curious! It doesn’t hurt.
He could feel warm blood seeping through his hands. He could smell its metallic odor. I didn’t manage to cheat death after all, he thought with regret. He lurched toward Noble as his consciousness fled.
I’ll die with my horse.
The gibbous moon cast its pearly light across the landscape, deepening shadows and illuminating the ripples on the river with flashes of silver. A million stars sparkled across the heavens in an incomparable display of beauty.
Rees was oblivious to the glory of the night. Exhausted, he trudged beside the river, stumbling over unseen roots and loose rocks. He carried his precious burden tightly against his heaving chest. Every now and again he would whisper to the man he carried, “Hold on, Konrad. We’re almost there.”
Are we almost there? Rees had no idea. He had been walking since early afternoon—running at first actually—with Konrad on his back. Eventually he’d had to slow to a walk, and when Konrad could no longer hold on, he’d carried him in his arms.
Now a stagger was the best he could manage. His eyes blurred with pain and fatigue. Konrad was a leaden weight in his numb arms. He pressed on relentlessly.
Konrad was alive yet. He kept checking. He could see the shallow breaths his friend was taking, but it had been hours since he’d responded to Rees.
Fuck! Why are we fighting a war in the middle of the fucking wilderness? Rees cursed the distance to civilization for the hundredth time.
Their company had marched for two days into the trackless wilderness, climbing the foothills of the Neverness Mountains to attack one of their enemy’s main base camps. They had been severely routed.
Even though he’d been in the thick of battle for almost two years, Rees had never seen such death and mayhem. He was still in shock, his mind repeatedly playing back visions of the horrors he’d seen throughout the long morning.
They had attacked just before dawn, catching their enemy still asleep. That advantage was quickly overcome by the superior numbers and skills of their enemy. Apparently the Kenezians had been preparing for war for decades. The Endoran army was made up mostly of new recruits, boys pulled away from their family farms and young men from the cities who sometimes didn’t even know how to properly sit a horse.
Just as their commander had given the order to retreat, Rees had seen his childhood friend go down under the sword of a Kenezian. He had scooped him up into his massive arms and carried him.
While he was trying to restore order in the fleeing ranks, their commander had been struck down. The slaughter that followed was appalling. Rees had heard someone yell, “Just run! Into the woods! Every man for themselves.”
He hoped that that order had come from a commanding officer, because he obeyed it. He had raced to the shelter of the trees and kept on moving. For a while others were around him, but he didn’t stop to ascertain if they were friend or foe, he just ran. Eventually he’d come to a stream, which he followed downhill until it merged into a river. The battle was long behind him by then. Konrad had been drifting in and out of consciousness. Rees had run for hours along the small track that skirted the river. Now, eighteen hours later, he could barely keep his feet under him.
The only thing sustaining him was a desperate need to get medical attention for Konrad. He became aware of the first paleness of dawn lightening the horizon. Suddenly, Konrad coughed weakly and his eyes flew open.
Rees stumbled to a halt, ecstatic that his friend was showing signs of life.
“Rees!” Konrad croaked. His pain-filled eyes focused on him.
“Shhh! We’re almost there, buddy,” Rees soothed.
“Rees, tell my family I love them.” Konrad’s plea was almost inaudible.
“No, Konrad! You can tell them yourself soon.” Rees fought his panic down, trying to maintain his composure to reassure Konrad. He laid his friend down gently in the long grass at the side of the trail, taking one of his hands in his own.
Konrad let out a groan. His eyes were glassy.
“Look Konrad, the sun is coming up. We’ll find your family today. We’ll get you help. You’ll be all right.”
Konrad looked into Rees’s eyes with deep affection. He seemed like he was going to say something else, but instead he took in a big gulp of air. His hand squeezed Rees’s tightly. As he let his breath out his eyes closed and his hand relaxed. He did not take another breath.
“Konrad!” Rees cried, “Breathe, Konrad! You have to breathe!” Rees’s voice broke. He shook his friend gently at first and then harder when he didn’t get a response. In his heart he knew his friend was gone. He had seen enough death in recent days to recognize it.
“No, Konrad, don’t leave me!” His wail pierced the stillness of the early dawn. He laid his head on his friend’s chest. There was no heartbeat. “Oh, Konrad! Konrad!” Rees hugged his friend’s still-warm body tightly and began to sob.
How long he cried, he didn’t know. Exhaustion overtook him and he passed into a dead sleep.
“Captain!” Elron called, “There are a couple of men over there. Endorans soldiers. Looks like they might be dead.”
“Take Myck and Jonny with you and go investigate. Take Therin too. One of them looks really big.”
The Kenezian soldiers quickly urged their horses across the shallow river and approached the men with caution.
“No shit, he’s big!” Myck whispered. The blond man lying with his back to them might have been the largest man he’d ever seen. Neither of the men was moving, but as they got close they could see the big man’s back rising and falling with slow, steady breaths.
They dismounted silently, swords at the ready.
Jonny picked up a hefty boulder and motioned to the others that he was going to clobber the big man with it.
Elron nodded his ascent.
Rees never knew what hit him. He woke up some hours later to excruciating pain in the back of his head. He was bound, hand and foot, and was lying in the back of a large open wagon with fifteen or so other war captives. They bounced along at a bone-jilting. The sun, now high in the sky, beat down upon them mercilessly.
Keven’s first awareness was of pain … then of surprise. I’m alive!
He peeked out through mostly-closed eyes. Noble’s broad back was nearby. He was lying on stubbly earth. He didn’t hear any close sounds, but he could hear distant moans and cries for help. The nightmare was not over. He was still lying on the battlefield.
He opened his eyes all the way and looked around cautiously.
There was no one in the immediate vicinity, but there were Kenezian soldiers still wandering among the battlefield debris. His attention was drawn to Noble and a great lump formed in the back of his throat, making it difficult to breathe.
His horse’s eyes were wide open, white showing all around, but staring blindly. Dead. He pushed aside memories of raising Noble, training him, caring for him. He turned his sorrow into anger, blinking back tears. I don’t have time for this! I need to get the hell out of here.
He noticed the ground he was on was soaked with blood. He wasn’t sure how much was his own and how much was Noble’s.
His first instinct was to run immediately into the woods, but he was afraid he wouldn’t get far. He’d bleed to death before he’d gone five hundred yards. Instead, moving slowly so as to not attract attention, he eased himself closer to Noble, gritting his teeth against the pain. It was not just his wounded side that complained. He had small wounds all over his body. A gash in his left palm was particularly painful.
Once close enough, he tugged his saddlebag open, grateful that Noble had died on his left side, rather than his right. After a few moments of digging he pulled out a cloth pouch. He leaned against Noble’s cooling flank, and his hands shook as he rummaged through the contents of the bag. It was full of medical supplies. The family physician had forced it on him when he left to join the war. He had only used it once.
He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled it to the side, lifting his shirt as high as he could, exposing his belly to the cool air. The wound was still spewing a trickle of blood. His pants below were drenched. He felt light-headed.
He clenched his teeth and splashed alcohol onto his wound from a small bottle. The sting curled his toes. Sweat broke out across his forehead. He forced himself to do it again and then used the last of the alcohol on his left palm—it was filthy.
He quickly packed his wound with the powder that was supposed to stop it from bleeding and keep it from getting infected. He pressed a clean cloth over the wound and shredded his spare shirt to use to tie it down. By the time he was done, blood was soaking through the cloth. So much for the clotting powers of the powder.
He wrapped his left hand quickly in more shreds of his shirt. The rest of his wounds would have to wait for treatment. The effort of ministering to himself had exhausted him. He paused for a moment, still leaning against Noble, eyes closed.
That’s when he became aware of what was happening. He heard a man begging and then a short scream. Keven turned his head to watch and realized the Kenezians were methodically moving across the battleground, killing all of the wounded.
Oh hell! I need to get out of here!
He eyed the trail into the woods. It seemed an impossibly long way away. How did I get this far onto the battlefield?
He began crawling toward the trail, praying that no one would notice. Sweat drenched his face. He felt as weak as a newborn kitten. Clenching his jaw against the shrieking pain in his side, he pressed on, crawling as fast as he could.
Suddenly, there were boots in front of him.
“And, where are you going?” the man demanded, brandishing a sword in Keven’s face. He spoke Kreoley. Keven’s mind translated the words into Endoran. He dredged up the unfamiliar syllables he needed to respond.
“Please don’t kill me!” Fear lent him strength and he scrambled to his feet, swaying slightly. “Take me prisoner.” He offered his hands together out before him.
The man laughed at him. “You look like the walking dead to me. That’s a lot of blood you have all over you.”
“Most of it’s my horse’s,” Keven replied, nodding back toward where Noble lay in a great pool of darkening crimson. He swallowed down the wave of grief that washed over him once more.
“You speak Kreoley well,” the man commented, looking Kevin up and down.
Keven wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was fluent in five languages. It had been part of his training for taking on royal duties some day. He was not expecting to ever be king. His father was still healthy and probably wouldn’t die for many more years, at which point his older brother would inherit the crown. Keven would likely become a diplomat or a high-ranking military commander. He thought diplomat suited his temperament better—and if he could avoid ever being on another battlefield he would.
These thoughts flashed through his mind as he wondered what to say to the Kenezian soldier. He didn’t want to admit he had studied Kreoley—that would be a dead give-away that he was from a wealthy family. He was not quick with lies, however, and by the time he started forming a response the man had already made up his mind.
“Fucking nobility!” he spat out. Eyeing Keven’s private’s uniform, he added. “I’m surprised your daddy didn’t buy you a higher rank.”
Keven winced inwardly.
“Hands behind you,” the man demanded, stepping close. Keven briefly considered fighting the man, but the Kenezian must have sensed it because he felt a blade against this throat. “Don’t try anything!”
Keven obediently clasped his hands behind his back. The man bound them with a strip of leather and led him away. Keven stumbled and cursed under his breath as he tried to keep his feet under him on the blood-slick ground.
The trip south across Kenezia was agonizing, both mentally and physically. Keven rode in the back of a large open wagon with twelve other Endoran prisoners of war. They were given water twice a day and allowed to relieve themselves twice a day—a few of the men couldn’t wait that long. Before too many days had passed, the stench in the wagon became unbearable.
They were fed rarely and Keven was starving. He lay in the bottom of the wagon, mostly immobile. Eventually, listening to their captor’s conversations, he learned that they were being brought south to be sold into slavery in Kreol.
Keven was sure his family would think that he had died in battle, and that thought distressed him more than a little. He tried not to imagine their sorrow and he suppressed his own. He wondered if he’d ever see them again. He didn’t want to contemplate his probable future, but thinking about his past was almost as painful. After a while, he tried not to think at all, which led to focusing on what he felt, which was mostly just excruciating pain.
His left hand infected, becoming hot and swollen, and weeping puss. Luckily, the wound in his side seemed to be, if not healing quickly, at least not infected. It also appeared that the blade had missed all vital organs because he could still breathe, eat, piss, and poop.
Their southbound wagon met up with others, eventually forming a chain of five wagons full of filthy, hungry, soon-to-be slaves. The journey across Kenezia took almost two weeks. Even though chilly nights and winter rains would soon be upon the mountains of Endora, Kenezia was lowland and far enough south that the days were still uncomfortably hot. As they traveled further south it was difficult to believe that it wasn’t full summer.
Shortly after they crossed the border into Kreol, the wagons pulled into a compound. Here the prisoners were brought forward one-by-one and forced to strip naked. They were allowed to retain their boots and socks. Bartering then ensued as the Kenezians sought to get the best price for each slave. After an agreement was reached, the new slave’s ankles were shackled and they were led away to be chained onto a long column of slaves. Their hands were left free.
When it was Keven’s turn to strip, he did so quickly, but with some trepidation. Sure enough, there ensued a brief argument over his wound. The Kreoley slave handlers insisted that he’d not survive the march south. Eventually the Kenezian officer who was in charge of negotiations, threw Keven in for free. He obviously didn’t want to be burdened with taking Keven back, and perhaps still had enough scruples to not want to commit outright murder. “He might surprise you,” he said.
The Kreol handler grunted and hauled Keven over to be chained with the rest of the naked slaves. He was obviously not going to get special treatment.
The slave handlers were a brutal lot. The Kenezian soldiers who had shepherded them thus far had mostly ignored them, but the Kreols were sadistic. They had a particular protocol they wanted the slaves to follow and delighted in punishing those who hadn’t figured out what it was. The rules included not speaking unless answering a question from a handler.
Almost everyone earned at least one punch in the face during the first long day. One man, who had the temerity to talk back to a slave handler, was tied to post and whipped until his back was streaming blood and his screams had turned to sobs. Most of the slaves learned the rules very quickly. Once in the care of the Kreols, they were fed on a regular schedule, twice a day, and for that Keven was grateful. It was the only thing he could find to be grateful for.
They were made to march south in a long chained column. The sun beat down upon them mercilessly during the daytime and by the end of the first day Keven’s fair skin was angry-red and hot to the touch. Some of the other slaves blistered. That night they slept on bare ground, chilled to the bone. Keven was exhausted and in so much pain he hardly noticed.
On the second day of the march, the man in front of Keven tripped and fell, pulling sharply on the chain around Keven’s ankle, causing him to stumble and half-fall. His quick, twisting movements as he regained his balance were enough to tear open the wound in his side and it began bleeding at a slow but steady rate. Keven tried to keep pressure on it with his hand. The cloth he had initially covered it with had become smelly and had been discarded long since. Because of his constant movement, the wound would not clot up.
By the end of the day, Keven was weaving, struggling to stay on his feet. He was so weak from loss of blood that his vision kept darkening. He knew that if he couldn’t keep up they would simply kill him. When they finally stopped for the night, he was never so happy to lie down on bare ground.
He recovered somewhat overnight, but as soon as they started walking in the morning he was right back to fighting to stay on his feet. Finally, as the sun climbed high in the sky, he succumbed. He felt himself start to pitch forward as his world went black.
When he came to, his ankle was being unshackled. They are taking me off the slave chain so they can kill me! Keven did not want to die.
“I can walk,” he croaked, sitting up quickly. His head spun with dizziness.
“I’ll carry him,” someone offered, speaking Endoran.
Keven looked up into brilliant blue eyes, a startling contrast to the man’s tan face. He was a giant—one of the largest men Keven had ever seen. His physique was incredible, his chest, shoulders and arms bulged with evidence of his strength. His torso was sculpted, his legs long and muscular.
The slave handler eyed the big man warily. “On your knees, slave,” he ordered in halting Endoran.
The big blond man obeyed immediately. Keven noted that his face was already a mass of bruises. The slave handlers apparently enjoyed demonstrating their authority over such a large man.
The handler punched the blond hard in the face, jerking his head backward.
“Let him carry this one,” one of the handlers said. Keven had observed that he seemed to be in charge. “It’ll keep his hands busy, tire him out more.”
The blond had recovered from being struck in the face and was kneeling perfectly still, his eyes on the ground before him, his face expressionless. A new red mark bloomed on his cheek.
“Yes, sir,” the other handler responded. Turning to Keven, he said, “Today’s your lucky day. If you can get him to carry you, you might live for another day.”
Keven’s grimace was meant to be a smile. He climbed slowly to his feet, choking back the grunt of pain, as his side stitched up. He shuffled over to the big soldier who was still kneeling.
“They’re going to let you carry me, if you’re still willing,” he said in Endoran.
The blond climbed to his feet. “Of course.” He smiled warmly. “My name’s Rees.”
“I’m Keven.” He returned Rees’s smile.
Rees picked him up easily.
“Fuck!” Keven could not stop the exclamation of pain as his torso twisted.
“Sorry about that.”
“I’m all right,” he panted. “Much better now that I don’t have to walk.”
“That looks like quite a wound you’ve got there,” Rees said softly. “I’m surprised they let you live this long.”
“Me too. Thanks for rescuing me.”
“It’s no trouble to carry you. Just promise me you won’t die on me. I don’t think I could handle it again.” A flash of grief swept across Rees’s features and then was gone, lingering only in his eyes.
“I’ll do my best,” Keven whispered.
Three weeks later, Keven was praying for death. His wound had infected. His feverish body felt like it was slowly burning to cinders. The pain in his side was excruciating. The only relief he got was when he lost consciousness, which was happening more and more often.
Rees whispered to him almost continuously—alternately encouraging him and cursing him. “You can’t die on me you fucking shit! You promised!”
Keven fought to hang on, for Rees’s sake.
He was barely alive when they finally arrived at the city of Urquay on the western coast of Kreol. There, at long last, he got the care he so desperately needed. In fact, the medical attention he received was beyond anything he’d ever imagined. Later his memories of it were spotty, but he knew they had begun by washing him thoroughly and making him drink something that put him completely under. When he awoke he was well-bandaged and his wound did not bleed again. His swift recovery bordered on miraculous.
Thereafter they continued their journey south to the vast estate of their new owner. There, their boots and socks, the last vestiges of their former lives, were taken away from them and they were issued loincloths.
Then they began their new lives as slaves for Master Rim.