I could feel sleep lifting from my heavy eyes as words danced upon my ears. To my view, there was Elirian, the girl that had found me beyond the ridge and guided me through the woods to the camp of her people. Looking around, I could see that daylight was breaking.
"Yes," I answered her, barely finding strength to speak, as my throat felt crushed from the weight of the jail guard's hand.
"Sarris, it is day now, and you must wake. We are moving camp. Hibergian men will soon be after us, if they are not as yet."
I jumped to my feet and rushed about, not knowing what I was to do, how I was to aid these people that had given me refuge. Turning back to Elirian, I posited, "If the Hibergians find me with you and your people, your fate will be sealed as mine, under the sword."
"My people know how to fight, Sarris. We have trained since ages past in the arts of war."
With a deep sigh, I pondered Elirian's words but could not escape the fear that they rang untrue.
"No, fair woman, no. I must leave. If I do not flee from this place, I will be responsible for the deaths of many. I must ensure they do not find your path and me upon it."
"Sarris, we have many trained men among us, men of valor and strength. We have one of the finest smiths in all the known world. Our swords are the surest blades ever forged. Do not think us too weak to defend ourselves."
I knew at that moment that nothing my mouth could form would convince the woman of the futility of her people's actions. If they were to fight, I must aid them, I thought.
Though time seemed to stand still, the hours passing as though they were days, the midday sun was about without my realization. It burned so hot that I felt as if I were being cooked alive, and it was at that moment that I understood I had not removed my wet clothing from the previous night's escape. I had traveled through swamps with the girl, Elirian. I had been wearing a tattered shirt, one that I had not taken off for much time, as slaves are rarely allowed the privileges of bathing or changing of clothes. I began to remove the shirt, revealing fresh wounds from the overseer's lash. The heat of the day seemed only to sting the wounds, causing searing pain and me to let out a yelp. This caught the attention of everyone in the party, and several turned to look at me with awe.
"You were not lying, Sarris. You were a slave, indeed," Elirian shrieked.
"Nearly all of my life," I replied. "I have few memories from before that time."
As more words attempted to part my lips, a sudden voice rang out from the distance, followed by a hellish laugh that chilled the bones. "We will find you, boy! You cannot run!"
I hoped to determine from where the voice came. I knew that it would not be long until the king's men found me among Elirian's people and slaughtered them all.
"Do you have any idea how far from us they are," I asked Elirian, knowing full well that my own skills were not suited to such a task.
Elirian was surprising, able to deduce, with immeasurable ease, the exact threat posed to us. "I believe that they have just crossed the ridge and will be here before the day's end. We must continue with all the speed of Ramoth."
"What if they are on horse?" This thought terrified me. We could not outrun a mounted party.
Elirian laughed. "Did you pay no attention last night, slave? The ridge is impassible on horse."
Her words gave me great comfort, though I knew the fear would not abate. I did not fear death, not after a lifetime of slavery under the hand of a barbaric king. I, however, felt unquenchable worry that the men would find us and slay these kind people and send me back to servitude and the whip.
I tried to allow my mind the release of distraction by keeping Elirian in conversation. "Who is this Ramoth of which you spoke?"
With a perched lip, Elirian let loose a tide of religious doctrine. "Ramoth is the god of truth and mercy, the true god. Others, they worship Dathan, or Sirt, or Myris, gods of evil, gods of darkness, gods of war. Our god, the one true god, teaches us to love one another, to fight only in defense of ourselves and the weak. Our god, Ramoth, has allowed us to live mostly in peace, to prosper, to gain in knowledge and love. And what god do you serve, slave?"
"I serve no god! I have never known a just god. The god of my people allowed us to be murdered or sold into bondage when we served him faithfully. The god of my masters is cruel, evil beyond measure. Those are the only gods I have known, and if death and slavery are the rewards of such gods, I would have no god!"
"I assume your masters worship Dathan," proposed the girl, looking at me pityingly.
"Yes. Dathan. God of fools, god of trolls, god of shit and filth."
"You have simply never found the one true god. Ramoth has never led his people into bondage, and other than a rare, small skirmish, he has not let his people face battle since times immemorial. We have taken no part in the wars of Stim, Gron, or any other of the whore kings of these lands. We maintain secrecy, choosing to live in seclusion where few ever find us."
As she said these words, I realized that we were moving no faster than before. With the king's men coming upon us, there was little hope, unless we did as Elirian said and moved with the "speed of Ramoth," something I still could not comprehend, but if it meant eluding our captors, so be it.
"Where will I go," I wondered aloud, not exactly expecting to be answered.
"To the lands of Balstaf the Black," came a reply, though I knew not from whence it came.
I looked all about and finally concluded that the words had come from a greying man ahead.
"And just who might this Balstif be." I knew that I had never heard of such a man and that he being named "the Black" could not mean anything good. Then I thought that if these people trusted him, he must be an honorable man and have earned such a name in a way that did not speak of his heart or deeds.
The greying man said so loudly that it almost hurt my ears, "His name is Balstaf! He is Lord of Arioc and all of the Salt Sea Lands. He is the only man of power that has ever displayed the slightest hint of kindness to our people. In a time very long ago, our people and his fought side by side in the war against the Giants of Ayrgayle." The man seemed to be angered by my having mispronounced Balstaf's name. If I held hope of surviving and remaining free, all I could do is make sure that I made only friends and left no one to betray me to the king's men.
"Sir, I assure you... I did not mean to cause you anger or malcontent. I simply have never before heard of such a man, and I wanted to know who he was and if he be friend or foe and the purpose for such a journey to his lands."
"Come up here, boy," came the reply of the old man.
I quickly left Elirian and found my way to the man, nudging aside a young woman that I assumed may have been the man's daughter. The man looked at me in a way that showed disgust. I did not know if it was because of the wounds on my back, the dirt on my face, or that I had been a slave until the day before.
"Boy, listen to me. If you want to make it through this life never again feeling the sting of a whip, you must do as I say, do as I do, and do not question me. I have trained many a man, and none of them has ever died or been taken under my watch. I have kept these people safe for more years than I can remember by teaching them well what to avoid, who to trust, and when to fight. We have avoided wars more than you have years by being watchful and smart. If you follow me and pay attention, you will see a land more beautiful than you can imagine and feel the welcome of a ruler that never raises a sword or whip against those he calls friend. Balstaf the Black would sooner see his entire kingdom destroyed than one man or woman taken from it by the cruel hand of someone like your king."
"So, you know who my king is, or was," I asked inquisitively.
"Of course, I do, boy. Everyone knows the barbarity of your King Ardan. He is not a man and no king of mine, though we have lived for years hidden on his lands."
"And you are king of these people?"
"Don't be foolish, boy. I am no king. We have no kings. Kings lead a people to ruin. I am Hafrinth."
"That is your name, Hafrinth," I asked.
"No, boy. My name is Dragnar the Brave.... But I am Hafrinth of this people. I am their judge, defender, and council. I serve this people with all of my being but am no king. To be a Hafrinth, one must gain the approval of all of the people. If one person does not want you as Hafrinth, you will never be Hafrinth. I was made so by my deeds as a young man. My mother was Isdari. My father was Seltud, I think. My mother was taken as a girl and enslaved to my father. When she was pregnant with me, she escaped, much as you did, and made it back to her people, the Isdari. Her grandfather had been Hafrinth long ago, and many thought that I was destined to live up to his legend. When I was barely grown, younger than you are now, I killed a bear with only a wooden spear and later, killed fourteen Avirisian men that were camped in the woods, about to attack us. From then on, I was a leader of some kind, leader of warriors, council to Hafrinths, and so on, until the people thought that I had proven myself to be the worthiest of the title itself and made me Hafrinth after Sandar the Old."
There were no words that I could say that would impart to this man the magnanimity of my awe for him.
We marched for many more hours, growing wearier as we traveled. I stumbled along with the rest, not knowing when there might be an end to the misery. Able to go no further, I turned to Dragnar and gave him a look that he immediately understood.
"Halt!" The man raised his sword high to signal the others to stop. "We will rest here for only a bit. Take water and food if you need it. When that is finished, we go on! We have at least three days of hard march ahead of us until we reach Arioc."
It seemed such a happy occasion. I felt so little strength left in me after walking all day that I fell beside a tree. Elirian soon joined me, offering me some of her drink.
"I thought you of all, being a slave, would be used to this."
With my mouth agape, I struggled to find words. Sighing, I answered what appeared to be an insult at my very manhood. "I am no slave! Not anymore."
"I did not mean..."
"I am a free man. But yes, I was a slave. And yes, I did do heavy work, but I have found myself weaker as of late, especially having been in the king's jail, kept in darkness, barely able to move, awaiting my death."
My tale apparently brought the girl to struggle herself for words. "I... I... I am so sorry. I..."
"Perhaps, I will tell you one day of my life, but for now, I do not feel compelled to do so. You assume that all slaves are kept doing hard labor at all times. That was my life, until the last time that I attempted to escape. They wanted to use me for an example and planned to have me flayed and then eaten by animals in front of the other slaves."
I had hardly finished explaining before there came a thunderous calamity, not far from where we now were. It sounded as though there were a large group of men talking and possibly, hoofbeats. Everyone must have heard it, as there was soon crying from the women and babes.
Dragnar drew his sword and signaled for everyone to disperse. Elirian and I ran to the woods beyond the tree by which we sat. The others moved into the woods on the opposite side of the path. The noises began to draw closer and closer. I could hear cries emanating from the other woods and watched as Dragnar held each hand over a mouth, one on a crying woman's, and the other, over her crying son. Dragnar pulled the woman and her son further into the woods and hid them behind a small cluster of trees.
We all watched fearfully as the hooves belted out an ominous warning. I suddenly turned and saw that the beats came only from a man and two others following behind him, none of them looking to be heavily armed or meaning harm. I knew well the armor worn by King Ardan's men and the type of sword they carried. These men, I realized, had to be farmers, or perhaps, from a nearby sea town. They appeared to be of some wealth, affording horses, but not of substantial importance.
I darted from my hiding place to stop these men and inquire of them what they had seen on the path, in order to gain an idea of how far back our pursuers might be.
"Pardon me, Sirs. Might I have a word with you?"
The older man, the one riding at the head, who must have been the father or leader of some kind, raised his hand for the others to stop. Leaning down to me a bit, he asked, "Yes. And who might you be, man of the wood?"
"My name is Sarris, Sir. My people and I are travelers."
"Your people," the man shot back, looking around, seeing no one behind me. "Are your people the trees or do you commune with the dead?" At this last question, the men with him laughed.
"No, Sir. I assure you, I am not mad. I have people with me. We heard your approach and feared that there might be men following us."
"Are you the one the party of soldiers is after? Might be a tidy reward in it for us... heh, boys?" The men laughed hard again, each time more mockingly.
"Soldiers," I asked. "How many?"
"Oh, I'd say at least ten. Maybe more. I didn't stay long enough to count 'em. I only spoke with one of them. He asked if we had seen anyone else on this trail. I told him we had not. Should I maybe go back and tell him that I have now?"
"Please, Sir. Do not. Those men are butchers, scavengers of flesh, bent on capturing a poor man to sell him into slavery. They are bounty hunters."
"Bounty? You don't say. So what's to stop us from taking this bounty of which you speak? We might dine well tonight, boys!" The men laughed again, and I now found myself barely able to refrain from grabbing the old man from his horse and pounding his face until it turned a delightful shade of red.
As I was grappling with this idea, Dragnar stepped forth, sword glimmering in the sunlight. Stepping to one of the other men, he had his sword to the man's throat. It happened so fast that no one knew it until the sword was pressed. For an old man, Dragnar was lightning quick.
"Good man, I say to you that if you think at all of living, you will say nothing to anyone. This boy is under my protection. If I see you even begin to turn your horse, this man will see his own heart just before enough blood spills from his neck for him to join his ancestors. And I ASSURE you, no one is quicker with a blade than am I."
The old man on the horse grew overtly pale as Dragnar spoke these words. I could not help but elicit a smile from my face. The old man began to reach for something on his side, facing me. It looked to be, perhaps, a dagger from inside his boot.
Dragnar pressed his sword closer to the other man's throat, this time, causing a small amount of blood to trickle out.
"If you want this boy here to die, by all means, reach for your dagger."
The old man on the horse threw his hands in the air and begged, "Please. I apologize, Sir. He is my son. I will do as you ask and leave this place, continuing in the same direction in which we were headed. I will speak nothing to anyone."
Laughing, Dragnar responded, "No, I do not believe you. I think that you are hired men. What do you think, Sarris?"
"I do not know what to think, Sir, except that these men are not to be trusted."
"Then, perhaps, I will remove this boy from this world and save us a bit of trouble." As he said these words, Dragnar gave me a slight wink, as if he were not planning on actually killing anyone but only to put fear into these men.
"Please, Sir," the man on the horse pleaded. "That is my only son. He is a good boy. If you must kill someone, take my life, not his."
"I will let you all live if you tell me exactly what you are doing here."
"We are traders, Sir, on our way to Vortenelis. Simple traders, that is all." The man looked as though he might fall from his horse and shed tears of sorrow and supplication.
"I do not know of traders that carry weapons. You, with your dagger, and the other one, with that sword that he thinks is so carefully concealed beneath his saddle. And besides, if you are traders, where are your wares?!"
"Alright," the old man retorted. "Alright. You have us. We are not traders."
"Then who and what are you?! I say you are hired men set to do us harm. If so, you may still lose your lives."
"As I said, you have us. We are hired men. I see that you are a wise man that can detect anything that is hidden. But we really are simple men. We are farmers and small traders. We were coming upon this path about midday, and we were approached by armed men. The men saw that we had horses, though they are not ours. The other boy, he stole these horses yesterday, and we fled. The men that approached us said that if we would ride ahead and scout for a party of vagabonds and report back to them, they would reward us heavily and make sure that we would not face the wrath of the king for our theft. We are obviously not very good at scouting or at deception. Now, I beg of you to please spare the life of my son."
Dragnar slowly nodded his head as if he were carefully considering the man's words. "As you request. We will let you and your son and the other one live... but in exchange for your horses and weapons. Horseless and unarmed men are no threat to us."
"Sir, I must request that you allow us to keep our horses. If you must take our weapons, that is well."
I witnessed Dragnar's face once again grow cold. "NO! You will have no horses. Persist, and I will finally make true what I am sure is already said of you, that you are heartless."
The man alighted from his horse and waved his hand for the others to follow his act. The other two dismounted as well, each offering their reins to Dragnar. Dragnar bid me to come to him and help, as well as Elirian. When Elirian appeared from the woods, the dismounted men stood in awe, as though they had not beheld such a beauty in all their lives. The men did not notice as Dragnar stepped to each of them to fetch their weapons. As he attempted to remove the dagger one of the younger men had tucked under his shirt, the man grabbed Dragnar's hand and would not let go. With his free hand, Dragnar struck the man in the face, knocking loose not only his grip but one of his teeth. The man fell violently to the ground, screaming as blood gushed from his parted lips.
The old man turned to see what was the matter. Only knowing that his son was on the ground, bleeding, or more erupting, from the mouth, the man tried to seize Dragnar's throat. Before the old hand could take hold, Dragnar's sword flew soundlessly from its sheath, and in a mere instant, the hand, too, was on the ground.
"I thought I warned you not to try anything foolish. You and these boys have no more sense than does a dog. You are lucky that I only took your hand. The last man that laid siege on me lost an eye, four fingers, his tongue, and both ears. If you want not to lose those, leave now. Otherwise, people will forever line the roads to see the half-blind, fingerless, deaf mute."
Dragnar pulled the old man to his feet as the man's other boy, the horse thief, aided his friend.
Dragnar was no fiend, still believing in justice and helping those in need. Tossing a rag to the thief, he iterated, "Use that to stop his bleeding. The hand won't grow back, but at least he'll know never to reach for a man's throat again. Now, take heed all of you that if I ever see you again, you will wish that I only take a tooth and a hand."
The three men stumbled down the road, the two younger ones supporting the old man, the man's son using his other hand to hold the spot where he lost his tooth.