When Railon awoke he did not, at first, know where he was or why he had fallen asleep at all. The sand was bright with sunlight, causing him to blink several times as he tried to get accustomed to the glare. Slowly he came to realize that he was bound to a spear pole lodged in the sand, within sight of the oasis pond. There were palm trees growing by the waterside, but the shadows they cast did not reach the spot where he was tied. Staring at the trees through blurred vision, he guessed, judging by the length and direction of the shadows, (for his face was not turned toward the sun) that it was before noon. Having established this, he immediately began wonder why he was not dead. As he cared less for his own freedom than for that of any man who resisted the ruthless empire-builder in the south, he had in fact forgotten that he himself was personally being hunted by the man’s soldiers.
As he gradually became more fully awake and was able to take better notice of his surroundings, he confirmed his first projection of the time and began to look around, wondering if anyone had been told off to guard him. By twisting his neck around as far as the bonds would allow, he was able to catch sight of a man sitting a short distance away with a cloak over his shoulders and spear in hand. As his voice grated painfully on his own ears, Railon mustered the effort to call to the guard.
“You over there! Go tell your chief his prisoner’s awake. Maybe he’ll have the decency to see that I don’t die today.”
With evident bad grace, the Naibern soldier rose from his position and disappeared beyond Railon’s field of vision. Moments later, Railon heard the sound of heavy boots coming up behind him. Suddenly, his head knocked hard against the pole he was tied to as the Naibern, whom he still could not yet see, slapped him by way of greeting. His skull pounding from the contact, Railon gingerly brought his face forward again, hoping only that the man had enough decency to end the beating with that blow, for the moment at least.
In the intervening seconds, the Naibern captain had come around to a position where he would be visible to his prisoner. He was clean-shaven, tanned, wearing a short-sleeved tunic of a dark shade (Railon could not decide if it was meant to be blue or green) a broad belt, dark leggings and the heavy boots. His brown hair was drawn back in what would be called a mullet, and a long sword was belted at his side. He spoke sharply to Railon as soon as the Gairbairn had had a moment to breathe.
Although Railon was a great traveler, he did not immediately recognize the dialect his interrogator was using, in part because he was still dazed. However, with bound hands he could not make this clear to his enemy, and so he only sat dumbly staring as the man tried again.
This time Railon was able to understand, as his head had cleared, and he replied “That I wouldn’t tell you. Am I the only one you captured?”
“I would say that it will go hard for you, but I have not yet decided if you are going to live to the sunset. The Emperor has placed a price on your head. He did not say it had to be on your shoulders when he next saw your face. The men you led are all dead and buried behind our camp. You cannot accuse us of barbarity now, can you?”
“I would say staking a man in the sun without food, shade, or water was barbaric enough, but then I would die, wouldn’t I?” Railon’s last words were forced out with a gasp, as his throat was too dry now to say any more. At a signal from the captain, a soldier took a water bucket down to the pond and filled it. Coming back, he threw most of it in Railon’s face before pouring the rest into his open mouth.
“Perhaps the Emperor will find a use for you, if you can stay alive till we come to him. Have you roused the natives to resist us or was that paltry force all you could muster?”
“...Told them you were coming. Taljun only gave me the score you killed...”
“They are easy marks then, the Emperor will be pleased at that. I believe I will keep you alive. Your head would have begun to rot by the time we rejoined the Emperor’s legions.”
“Then you were not sent to invade this country?”
“As brilliant a general as they say you are, and you thought that? We were sent only to gauge the strength here, and to hunt for you. And that has been long and hard. How could fourscore riders capture a country?”
“Perhaps I could do it, if you let me try.”
The Naibern snorted loudly at this absurd suggestion, which had been delivered with the gravity due to a serious proposition. “And how could you do that, if you wish to make yourself sound even more foolish?”
“Having scouted the position before, one attacks from all sides silently in the dark. Capture the general or the ruler. He will usually be fearful enough for his own safety that he will order his men to stand down. Then you are in control.”
“And what is the defense against such tactics?” the Naibern general asked, now half-believing that this Gairbairn could accomplish such a thing if he tried.
“The only defense is proper vigilance. With the gift of unreliable watchmen, a score of men could achieve such a thing before anyone could draw their blades, provided there was a spy on the inside. It nearly worked several times against your own emperor, a failing for which he would most likely blame you and your comrades. If only he had less men we would have done it.”
The Naibern captain could not immediately find the words with which to respond to such a candidly negative appraisal of the legions of the Emperor Kalveston, who, with them, had probably already swept all the lands in the south under his banner of the flaming wheel of doom. But here was a man, a prisoner, boldly claiming that he had nearly held Kalveston at knifepoint several times already. The Emperor would be glad to hear of this, but it would surely mean an awful death for him and all the other officers of the legions. The Emperor’s attitude toward failure was well-known. But he himself would be the one credited with capturing this insolent mercenary, and had the Emperor not said that the man to bring him back would become second in command and be showered with riches? But if the prisoner spoke it would be the death of him. But perhaps it would also be the death of the prisoner...
Eventually, the man’s ambition won over his fear, and he ordered that Railon should be unbound, and fed and watered enough to travel.
When the ropes had fallen from his wrists, Railon stood up and brought his arms back before him again, slowly swinging them back and forth to relieve the stiffness and help restore the feeling from his shoulders to his fingers. As he stood within arm’s length of the spear-pole he had been bound to, two soldiers brought him a small portion of traveling rations and a proper water-skin. He ate and drank gratefully, without acknowledging the presence of the Naiberns, who left while he was thus occupied, taking the upended spear with them. Railon noticed this with disappointment.
“That’s unfortunate. I could have done some damage if they had forgotten it still had a blade. But the captain would probably decide to kill me here for a rash move like that. Perhaps I can make my escape on the move.” Still standing, and holding the food in one hand and the water in the other, he silently watched his captors breaking camp.
The striking of the camp was done quickly, even more so because several tents had been ruined by Railon’s attack and were simply left where they had fallen. When this task had been completed, the Naibern captain returned with two more men, one of whom was holding a long length of rope. At a signal, Railon’s wrists were again bound together and the remaining length of rope was tied to one wrist of one of the soldiers, so that they would know immediately if the Gairbairn made any attempt to escape en route to the emperor’s camp. Having done this, the soldiers maneuvered him roughly towards the area where their animals had been grouped together. After the previous night’s battle, there were several unburdened mounts available; Railon was forced up onto one which appeared to be meant for baggage rather than a rider. The soldier whose wrist was bound to those of Railon climbed aboard one of the animals close at hand without saying a word to the prisoner.
In all this time, no one had said a word to Railon, which in itself did not concern him much, since he had not expected better as a prisoner. Yet he was curious to know just how long he would be riding in such a manner, so he called out a question to the captain to this effect.
The answer was delivered in the same derisive manner as the captain’s earlier statements had been. “Wait and see. Perhaps your ride will be shorter than ours if you make a nuisance of yourself on the way. But surely one as old and wise as you do not need to be told that.” The captain laughed at his own cruel jest and rode away out of earshot.
Now more than ever did Railon wish he had turned back toward his own country. It was all very well to be traveling in the south upon knight-errantry of his own will, and to slow the pace of the empire-building of a man who was beginning to think himself the lord of life and death. But Railon had never once anticipated that he might be captured and also left alive, to be brought before the face of the man he had so long defied, who was liable to order him killed the moment the news of the capture reached him. Therefore, Railon decided, it would be best to set his mind to contriving his escape, as soon as could be accomplished.
However, no opportunity to loose his bonds presented itself to Railon between the day of his capture and the day he was brought to Kalveston’s camp, fully ten days afterward. Having arrived, he was barely given time to relish the change in posture and regain his legs before he was hurried off in the direction of Kalveston’s tent, an oversized mass situated in the center of the horde like a fortress over a trade route.
Railon noted that as he passed, he was being stared at by many of the soldiers he passed. No one said anything he could hear, but it seemed to him that there was a mixture of both satisfaction and disappointment at his capture. He could not think why men of this horde would be disappointed at his capture, unless those who watched him thus had been men who followed him, now doomed to destroy their own lands in the service of the conqueror. This Railon did not think likely, for when he had departed not a man in his command had yet been taken alive by the emperor’s forces. One other reason came to mind then; the idea that his enemies had, in grudging respect for his prowess against them, begun to attribute to him levels of size and ferocity that far outmatched their opinion of the abilities of the real man now being marched past them. But not a man reacted any further, and Railon was still left to face the ruthless emperor alone.
As they approached the warlord’s tent, another soldier standing guard over the entrance hastily thrust aside the flap, looked in, and announced “Lord, a patrol approaches with a prisoner.” Then the man removed himself from the space more quickly than he had entered it, as Kalveston’s voice called out that he should do so, and to send the prisoner in posthaste.
Railon noticed that the captain who had captured him was allowing a smug look to come over his face at these words. There was no doubt that the man was sure of what he would get the moment he made his announcement. Railon was not so sure, and was racking his brains for a way which would allow him a stay of his own execution. A few steps and a stray thought later he was thrust through the opening of Kalveston’s tent at the sharp end of a spear, his wrists still bound, only just loosely enough that he still had hands.
As he was forced to his knees before the warlord, Railon stole one look at the contents of the shelter, as much as one quick turn of the head would allow. The tent itself was made of fine silk, dyed grey inside and out. Kalveston’s armor was on display in a far corner of the room, and his flag was displayed across the wall which faced the tent opening. There was a cot, a map table, and two or three chairs in the space. A guard stood, conspicuously silent, in the slight shadows alongside the armor. There was no sign of food on the table; evidently Kalveston had been resting when they arrived. Since it was now mid-morning, Railon knew this meant that the warlord had been waiting on his arrival and had no intention of moving the army until his prisoner’s fate had been decided.
Railon let his head hang limply, calculating that this posture would allow him to escape Kalveston’s notice for the moment and have a few more seconds to think of a possible plan. Soon he heard the warlord’s voice from above, addressing the troop captain who had come in behind him. “Who are you, and who is this prisoner?” The Naibern warlord was using the tone of one who has resigned himself to the task of dealing with men of simple minds.
“I am Reynault, sir, of the far west coast of your empire. I trust I have pleased you with this prisoner.” The captain did not sound proud; he only sounded hopeful, as if he was suddenly much less confident that he would receive what he wanted. Perhaps he had come at a bad time.
“I don’t care where you’re from, man! Your name, and the name of this prisoner, are enough, before I decide that you are wasting my time.”
Railon felt himself kicked, none too lightly, either. Reynault spoke again. “Sire, the prisoner calls himself Railon. He claims that he led the rebels and could have killed you many times.”
Suddenly Kalveston’s feet moved out of Railon’s vision. Then he heard the warlord’s voice again, more sharply than before. “Fool, a claim like that does not make me afraid of a man, it tells me I have fools as captains! If he could have killed me, why hasn’t he? Clearly I am the better man, yet you believe him! I would have you killed, but I like to watch the spectacle, and I haven’t the time to watch a worm writhe on the ground. Guard, take him away!” Scarcely a moan was heard from the shocked Reynault as he was dragged away by the guard who had been watching.
The Naibern’s lower legs returned to Railon’s field of vision and he heard the man say “Get up. Or collapse and lie there like a dog if you prefer to. I’ll not have anyone aid you.” Hearing this, Railon began the process of rising. Owing to his bound hands, it was more difficult than it should have been, but eventually, after two unsuccessful attempts, the Gairbairn was standing upright before the Naibern, who was now seated in one of the chairs. Railon made no move to take a seat himself, even though his legs were aching horribly after his ordeal.
“I caught your pitiful army not long ago and crushed them utterly. I hope that disappoints you. Did you think they would really survive?”
“Word always passes somehow. Soon you will meet another army. And they will fight.”
“Farmers and tradesmen? Ha. Why do they continue to fight me? Everywhere I go, they fight. Most men would have learnt sense by now. I don’t care if they keep their miserable lives. But they fight me. You were their general for a time-tell me why those men fought.”
“Because most men do not believe in being destroyed without a struggle. If you had devised a way to take control without the use of armed might, perhaps no one would have noticed until you worsened their lot. But some men have to prove that they are the strongest...”
Calling for a guard to bring him food and drink, Kalveston said “I am ahead of you still. I am no stranger to other methods, for I had been planning this entire venture since i became the chief general of my homeland, protecting fat and lazy lords who did not know a gauntlet from a greave. I sent forth men loyal to me, all to subvert the North in various ways. And even were you to escape, you would be no help to your people, for my men have been long in the north and cannot be told from the loyal men until they strike the fatal blows.” Draining the drink which the guard had just brought, he gestured carelessly with the other hand. “It amuses me to watch your hopes die so quickly. Perhaps you thought you could mask your feelings? Worry no more, for soon you will have no more worries. Take him away, and bind him with that captain who brought him here. Before sundown one will die. It will be fine entertainment.”
At the command, Railon was grabbed firmly by the guard and marched out of the imperial tent. One hundred yards further along, they came to a small circular open space in the center of which had been set several tall poles for the restraint of prisoners. At a glance, Railon noticed that the erstwhile captain Reynault was bound to another post several feet removed from the one Railon himself was being led toward. When they had come within range of the post, the guard removed the rope from one of Railon’s wrists, while at the same time keeping a tight hold on that same hand as he pulled the rope around the pole and quickly rebound the hand he had held, so that Railon’s jaw was pressed against the pole and he had his back toward the warlord’s tent and was secured in a prime position to be whipped. Railon counted himself fortunate that they did nothing more to him and that his face was turned toward his fellow prisoner so that he could, if he dared, talk to the other man and perhaps devise a way of escape. But for the present, he would be silent, for he needed what little rest he could gain.
He remained silent for several hours, but then, hoping that the men on guard nearby would not notice, he spoke in the tone of a secret conspirator, trying to get the attention of his fellow prisoner. “Reynault...Reynault...If you will hear what I would say, take heart. We are both doomed to die before dusk. If we were to work together we may yet escape this doom. What say you?”
Reynault, who was tied in much the same way as Railon, answered him after a pause. “Only this morning we were sworn enemies, and now we are to live or die together? I shall have to take the hope you offer, for no man has ever regained the emperor’s favor from here. Still, we have to know the manner of our death before we can hope to help each other out of it...A guard approaches!”
Both men instantly fell silent as a guard carrying a water jug and two small pieces of bread came within earshot of their secretive tones. The man stopped first at Reynault’s position and poured the water over the prisoner, seeming unconcerned as to whether he was able to drink all of it. Then he took a biscuit from his other hand and shoved it at the prisoner until Reynault had it between his teeth and was struggling mightily to chew it without the support of his hands. Railon knew he would get the same treatment, and that there was nothing he could do except to clench his jaw in preparation to hold the biscuit tightly.
When both prisoners had received what food and water they could get, the guard stepped away and spoke. “Savor it. I think that’s all you get for a while. If you’re lucky you may get another drink before your death comes.”
Having forced down as much as he had been able to keep in his grip, Railon asked “Do you know, how we are to die?”
“I don’t, but I’ve heard that it will be before sundown. When the emperor comes out, then you will know. Pray to your god, if you have one.” With that, the guard left.
It was, in fact, not long after this episode that Kalveston emerged from his tent to a burst of fanfare and proceeded directly to the prisoner’s clearing. He stopped only a few from them and announced their impending doom to the waiting horde. “One of these men is the fearsome rebel Railon, the northern mercenary. Some of you may have begun to think he was actually dangerous. Such an attitude can be dangerous to yourself, and as proof of that, there stands a man who was once a captain among you; Reynault of the west, who was so foolish as to admit to his emperor that he believed the empty boasting of a wanted rebel. For that they will both die, as a lesson to those who would doubt me.”
When his name was mentioned, Reynault had begun to struggle, and at the accusation, he cried out “I never said I believed him! I’m not ready to die!” Then a guard struck him with the haft of a spear and he went silent. Kalveston finished his speech.
“They will both take 30 lashes, and when that is done they will be cut loose to fight to the death with swords. The survivor might join my ranks or try to escape if he dares, but where would he go?” The last statement was greeted with a smattering of forced laughter from those nearby. Kalveston stepped back and signaled that two soldiers holding whips should step forward.
Railon braced himself as best he could, but the shock and pain was like nothing he had ever felt before, because there was nothing that compared to it. At the first blow, he was unable to hold back a moan of despair and shock. However, he was determined that nothing more would be gotten out of him for his enemies’ satisfaction. Before the next blow landed, he filled his lungs and emptied them again more slowly. Having regained some measure of self-control, he took the rest of the blows without any audible reaction. By the time the count had reached twenty-five he had passed out under malnourishment and pain.
Only a few minutes later, he was revived by a trickle of water from a ladle being held over him, and at the same time he felt the bonds on his wrists finally loosen and fall off. “Oh that time has come...” he thought. He was so dazed and hurt that he could barely think. Staggering away from the whipping post, he slowly looked around through eyes nearly blinded by pain. It was evening, and tent shadows had nearly spread their welcome shade over the entire area near the prisoners’ clearing. Now there was a full ring of guards surrounding the impromptu arena, armed with spears and shields. Kalveston was seated inside the ring so as to have a clear view, but the rest of the horde was being held behind the guards.
At a word of command, two soldiers advanced from either side of the ring and thrust swords into the hands of the prisoners. By this time Railon’s head had cleared as much as his ordeal would allow, and suddenly a desperate plan of escape came into his mind.
But his next thought was preempted by his enemy. The Naibern’s sharp command to begin the fight broke upon Railon’s ears like the toll of a bell. Obediently, Railon and the doomed Naibern captain advanced on each other and traded half-hearted blows, each trying to save some energy for future life. Soon, it became apparent to the hostile horde that neither prisoner felt inclined to strike a death-blow, and the crowd began to voice its displeasure. This was what Railon had been waiting for, and he took the opportunity to press close to his opponent and say a few words under cover of the noise.
“He who wins will also die. Together we might escape. Emperor thinks himself safe. He is their spirit, and sits unguarded. Are you with me?” When Reynault nodded in agreement, Railon added “force me back toward him, and we will make our move. Then cover my back.” With this he broke away as if beaten off, while Reynault followed, seeming to press his advantage. Even while selling a desperate defense of his life to the audience, Railon was willingly giving ground, and the fighters drew closer to the emperor’s chair at a measured pace, with Railon offering a few missteps as proof that he was overpowered.
But when the two fighters had finally drawn within steps of Kalveston’s chair, they finally revealed their true plan. With a final thrust, Railon was propelled over the last few feet, whereupon he grabbed Kalveston by the collar while menacing him with the sword he still held. As he did this, Reynault turned in the other direction to guard his back. In as loud a voice as he could muster, Railon proclaimed their demands while glaring into the expressionless eyes of the warlord.
“We want our freedom, and the means to keep it! If one man so much as lifts his weapon off the ground, I will behead the invincible emperor! You don’t want that, for you will then be nothing more than a crowd of smaller armies.” Railon paused for breath. This speech was draining all his will to stand. “My companion here can tell you; your emperor promised riches and power second only to his own for the man who captured me! When this was done and the proof brought back, what did this man do? He sentenced your captain to death on the first excuse! There are men among you loyal to Reynault of the west, if they haven’t all been killed. Will you save your captain!”
Kalveston himself had not actually shown any visible reaction to the imminent threat to his life, and had allowed Railon his speech without so much as a word. But now he spoke, even as the sword hung inches from his head. “Who do you follow? An emaciated rebel or the emperor of the land? Slay all those who make a move to help these two. It is no matter to me that they threaten my life, for I know that they have not the strength to do it. Kill them!”
There was no immediate response to the warlord’s command. It seemed that each soldier in that vast horde was thinking over the words of the prisoners and the cold command of the emperor, and deciding in their own mind which beliefs they felt more loyalty to. On one hand, they were following a man who took no counsel and executed them for deviating from his plan, whose death would splinter them against one another by his own design. On the other, he was still their commander, but he had ordered them to kill their comrades if any helped the prisoners. The emperor Kalveston was leading them to great power, but it only now became apparent to many of them that he did not care how many died to consolidate the power of one man.
In the silence, Reynault whispered to Railon “I can’t take more of this. If they don’t move in a moment I will die. Only the chance of freedom is sustaining me.’
“I feel the same. Stand strong. I suspect your men will join you, but only if you still live.”
Some men had come to a decision they could accept. Suddenly a commotion started up deep in the ranks of the horde as men of conflicting loyalties chose to obey the conflicting orders and began to fight each other. The combat spread like fire through the ranks, until even the spearmen guarding the clearing were fighting among themselves and against others they had been holding back. One of the guards took advantage of the confusion to disregard Railon’s warning and threaten him as he stood over Kalveston, who was smirking at him now. Without a word Railon gave them both a warning, breaking the skin of the emperor’s neck with the sword he held. this wiped away the smirk and caused the guard to step back.
Finally, when the prisoners felt they had been drained completely of their strength and were about to fall on the ground and die, several soldiers broke through the ranks, leading mounts and calling for their captain. They brought the steeds alongside the two prisoners, who had not moved for several minutes, and helped them climb aboard the animals.
“We will keep you alive until you break out of the camp. After that I cannot say that any will be alive to aid you further.”
“May you be kept alive for the choice you have made today. Point me to the nearest edge. Your captain and I will find our way to my home from there.” Jerking his mount alert, Railon called back to Kalveston “And ill fortune follow you, murderer. When this ends you will have to kill a hundred more of your own men to make the rest follow you anywhere.”
Kalveston could only sit and take this last insult, for he could do nothing about it. His army was destroying itself, partially by his own doing, and his prisoners were riding away alive and guarded. As he sat and glared he vowed that the insolent Railon would be found and made to die a horrible death.
By the time Railon and Reynault broke out of the camp on the east side, dusk had come and the abrupt desert change from heat to cold had come with it. Fortunately, Reynault’s men had also provided them with a pack animal to carry several more days of supplies. Railon did not want to think of the trials those men had gone through to procure three animals and supplies, and then bring them all both directions as they had done. He felt that, had any survived, he would have owed them a debt that nothing short of saving their lives in return could repay. But the last of them had died at the edge of camp, just as Railon and their captain had broken through. Then those two had ridden on for a short time to gain some distance, stopping only when it began to get truly dark.
On dismounting, Railon and Reynault, who during their ride had both regained just enough strength to save themselves, first opened the supplies and each took a little water and a little food. This done, they advanced to a fire and a shelter. Finally, they sat by the fire and cleaned each other’s backs.
When this grisly task was done, they both felt considerable relief, but they were far from fully healed, for they had both been bleeding slowly all evening, and had begun to feel dazed and light-headed the moment they had first escaped the ranks of the hostile horde. They drew lots for the first watch and it fell to Railon. As Reynault went inside the shelter, Railon seated himself with his back to the fire, facing in the direction they had come from. To keep himself awake through the dark silence he fell to thinking about his home and family. In truth it was a desert scarcely more hospitable then this one, being but the northern part of it, but it was now the one and only place he wanted to see. But he could not go home for a long time yet, for a warlord such as Kalveston would not allow an insult such as Railon’s had been, even were it merited, to pass unchallenged. As surely as the sun would rise in the morning, Kalveston would send men on their trail as soon as he had regained control of them. And knowing that, Railon could take no chances. He would have to wander far and long before turning his steps toward home again.