The next day, we packed our belongings before heading out to fetch our horses. We had our breakfast at the inn which consisted of stale bread and cheese. What I would give for coffee right now; and cereal. I would do anything for honey puff corn flakes. But all they had was dried bread, ale, water and milk. I stuck to water. The milk looked like it had curdled overnight.
The inn was bustling with noise and Maisie was running around in excitement and partly fear.
“Something big has happened. The royal army is here!” Maisie said.
“What’s the royal army doing in this small village?” Maximell frowned.
“It seemed someone alerted the authorities. They found a criminal hiding in our village and the royal army came to bring that criminal to justice,” Maisie said.
I thought back to the person who tried to steal my coins. Was the criminal the thief from yesterday? Did he get caught stealing? Not my problem. I raised up from the table and paid the innkeeper. The stable boy was already waiting for us with our horses. Kyrie was well groomed and fed. I patted the horse fondly before mounting him. It didn’t feel so awkward to mount on his back now.
We said our thanks and goodbyes before leaving the inn and made our way towards Sirandil. As we passed the bridge, I saw the commotion. There was a crowd around a group of armoured men which I assumed to be the royal army. One of them carried a long pole and a flag was attached to it, embroidered in red and gold and shaped of a lion. There was a disheveled man kneeling on the ground, his head bowed. He was wearing a dark blue sleeveless shirt and a black harem pants. The sun shone on his hair and I could tell his hair was more of navy blue than black. His ponytail hung over his shoulders.
But one thing that had my interest was a thick, silver collar around his neck.
“What happened here?” I asked one of the villagers who was jumping in and trying to see over the crowd.
“You didn’t know? He’s an escaped slave. He’s a dead man now. The army is holding a public death penalty at the town square soon.” He said over the leers of the crowd. Some threw rocks at him but he couldn’t do anything to defend himself. His hands were tied back by thick ropes. The man lifted his head to the sky and I saw who he was.
His face was bloody and slashed from the whipping. There were whipping marks on his muscled arms and they were covered in dirt as he got kicked to the ground. The army men laughed and kicked them with their metal shoes before spitting on him.
He was just an animal to them. He wasn’t even considered as a human being.
“What’s the status of slaves in this world? Do they have any rights?”
“Rights? What are you talking about, Alice? Slaves don’t have rights. They are at the mercy of their owners. Runaway slaves will be dragged by the chains with a galloping horse around the square before they cut off his head,” Maximell said.
There was a disapproval frown on his face, but he made no move to intercept.
One of the soldiers bent down and hooked Xeron’s collar to a long, metal chain. Then he attached the other end of the chain to a horse. Another soldier mounted on the horse, his hands already pulling the reins. I looked around, disgusted. The people just stood there and watched their fellow human about to be dragged away on the ground by a horse. In fact, some of them whooped and cheered. This was a public entertainment.
I didn’t even recognise my own voice. I was surprised at the deep authority in my voice. I gripped Kyrie’s reins and he gaited towards the army, his hooves made a clopping sound on the gravel road. Slowly, the crowd parted like Moses’ sea to let me through. Their eyebrows were drawn in puzzlement. Some looked at me like I just spoiled their party.
“How much for him?” I said.
One of the soldiers snorted in disbelief.
“You want this lad? He’s a runaway slave. He’s worthless.”
I took out my bag of coins and threw it to the ground.
“Will that be enough?”
One of the soldiers bent down to examine the pouch. He opened it and laughed.
“You want to buy this boy with these coins? You need to pay more than this, young man.”
I pulled on the reins tighter. Kyrie shuffled uneasily.
“You just said he’s worthless and yet I’m giving you some monetary exchange for the deal. So you’re the ones gaining from this situation. And look at him. He’s beaten and bloody. And you demand for more? Why don’t we forget about this and I’ll have my coins back.” My voice was stern; my right hand was already touching the hilt of my sword. If they disagree, I’ll turn this into a blood bath.
The soldiers looked at each other before they assessed me. After a few moments, one of them spoke.
“We got ourselves a deal.” He turned to one of his men. “Remove the chains. He’s free to go to his new master.”
“And I hope you find some use to him, young man. Flog his hide. It’ll do him good.”
“I’ll take care of my own.” I turned to Xeron who was staring at me open mouthed. “Now come.”
I headed towards the road. Xeron soon followed suit, his cloak tucked under his arm. No wonder he had that cloak. It hid his collar.
Maximell immediately flanked my sides.
“What were you thinking, Alice? You just gave away all of your coins.” He hissed at me under his breath.
“I don’t care what you think, Maximell. It only matters what I do,” I replied stoically.
“What are you going to do with him? He’s a runaway slave. He’s nothing but trouble.”
“I’ll deal with him.” I ended the conversation abruptly.
I made Xeron mount Maximell’s horse. Maximell protested and I threatened to leave his hide behind if he did not do so. With a sulk, Maximell made some room for Xeron. Xeron mounted the horse behind Maximell, his hands holding onto Maximell’s cloak.
“If you put your arms around my waist, I’ll drop you.” Maximell glared at him. He glared at me too, like everything was my fault. I shook my head and carried on.
It wasn’t that I held special feelings for Xeron. He was a mere stranger to me. I would’ve ignored it all and made my own way, but I couldn’t forget those eyes that stared at me last night with such intensity. His eyes were cold and sharp like a blade. His eyes held flames that rivalled my own. It would be a shame to have the light of those eyes snuffed out.
When we reached the outskirts of the village, I told Xeron to get down. He obliged.
“You’re free to go. Go wherever you wish to go. I don’t care.” I told him before I steered my horse away.
“Wait!” Xeron stopped in front of my horse. “Why did you save me? What do you want from me?”
His voice was no longer mocking the world nor did it hold any shadow of arrogance. I was probably looking at the real Xeron for the first time.
“Does everything have to have a reason? Do I have to do something to receive a favour in return? I saved you from your death. It doesn’t matter why. You’re free now.”
“Why are you letting me go?” he said in bafflement. He looked at me like he couldn’t figure me out. His face was one of puzzlement.
“I simply have no need for you.”
I steered the horse around him but Xeron intercepted me again, his arms spreading out wide.
“You bought me. You’re my master now. You can’t just leave me behind.”
“Didn’t you run away from your previous master too? I don’t know what your history is and I have no means to know. I paid for your freedom, not to be your new master. Take your freedom and live.”
This time when I left him, he didn’t follow. I felt him staring at me until I disappeared from view.
We camped that night on an open field. Maximell skinned a rabbit that I hunted earlier at the back of the woods. He skewered the rabbit whilst I made fire. We ate our dinner but the meat was tough on my teeth.
Maximell patted his cloak and used it for his pillow. I was the first one to keep watch.
“Look out for the demons and the thieves; the thieves especially. They’re a ruthless lot.” Maximell said while he yawned.
“Thieves? What do I do if we are ambushed?” I asked.
“If you think you can handle them, kill them,” he said simply before closing his eyes.
If someone suggested that to me last week, I would’ve called the cops and alerted them of the potential homicidal freaks. Taking a human life was a terrible sin in itself. It was the kind of horror that you would get from newspapers or movies. To kill someone, to snuff out their lights until they no longer breathed. In the real world, murder was surreal. It wasn’t something you would expect to come across. But that had changed for me when I witnessed my mother’s death. I’d long accepted that murder was already part of my life. I didn’t feel queasy when Maximell suggested killing. It didn’t feel like murder. It felt...natural. The way of life. A self defence mechanism. I lay back on the grass and gazed up at the starry sky. The skies were so clear here. There were thousands of diamonds that sparkled in the canvas of black ink.
I wondered if my mother could see me now from the Heavens above. Would she weep at the loss of my humanity? Would she mourn that my blood was turning cold and the thought of killing no longer fazed me? Killing was such an evil deed, yet it didn’t feel evil to me. Maybe I was turning evil after all. Evil doesn’t even know it’s bad.
Not long after, I heard a rustle. My mind sharpened and I immediately perked up. I could feel something watching me. I scanned the area but all I could see were shadows and darkness. I crept slowly to Maximell and shook him. He opened his eyes and I put my finger to my lips, nodding to the shadows. His eyes were wide with fear and he immediately grabbed his sword.
I sidestepped silently towards the bush. My movements were silent on the grassy field. I took out my sword and held it in my hand, ready to strike. I came to the bush expecting to see a band of thieves jumping out or a demon. What I saw made me stop. I growled at him.
“Ouch, let me go!”
I dragged Xeron by his collar to the open view. Maximell followed closely behind me.
“Hell’s gate. Did you follow us?” Maximell said angrily.
I shoved Xeron to the ground and pointed my sword at him.
“Speak, Xeron. Before I cut out your throat.”
“Alright, just calm down. Point that sword away.” He spread his hands wide in surrender. “I didn’t mean to follow you but I don’t have any other place to go. Let me go with you. I can be useful,” Xeron pleaded to me.
“You don’t even know where we’re going,” Maximell scoffed.
“I don’t care as long as I’m with you. I’ll be your bodyguard. I’m strong and I’m a good fighter,” he said to me.
I stared at him for few seconds before I sighed and sheathed my sword.
“I’m travelling to Sirandil. I don’t seek danger or adventure. I hope to avoid any trouble if I can, but I’ve been told my road will be dangerous. I will not be responsible for your death.”
“Of course. I will do anything to aid you,” he said gratefully.
“Wait, you’re going to let him follow us?” Maximell asked in surprise.
“I don’t care what he does. If he ends up dead, it’s not my problem. Besides, he can take watch at night while we sleep,” I replied and returned to the fire. The men followed me shortly.
“Great. I’m still going to have to share my horse with him,” Maximell said grumpily.
“I’ll get a horse when we arrive to the next village. I got bags of coins.” Xeron patted his pockets.
I snorted. I’ve no doubt it was all stolen.
“Go to sleep, Maximell. We got a long journey tomorrow.”
Maximell grumbled under his breath before he settled back on his cloak and closed his eyes.
“So uh, what’s your name? Do you want me to call you, master?” Xeron asked.
“You don’t have a master, Xeron. I’m Alice and he’s Maximell.” I nodded at the sleeping figure. Maximell sure fell asleep fast.
“Thank you, Alice. I still don’t understand why you saved me, especially after I tried to steal from you.”
“You didn’t steal from me. I stopped you. Let bygones be bygones.”
“Still, thank you. I am forever in your debt,” he said gratefully.
I sighed. “You are a free man, Xeron. You don’t owe me anything.”
Xeron fingered his thick collar.
“I can never be free, not while this collar is around my neck. Do you know why it’s made of metal? The Kingdom Arundel is scorching hot during the summer. When it was hot, our collars tightened and we walked around with our air pipes squeezed. The sun strangled us and our masters didn’t even have to lift a finger.”
“Can’t you take it off?” I asked.
“I tried many times but there is only one key and my old master had it. It was the only thing I couldn’t steal. It was my only way to freedom.”
“You couldn’t go back to steal it? I saw how fast you were with your quick fingers. How could you not steal the key from your own master?”
He looked at me wistfully, the flames licked in his eyes.
“No. My key is not with my master now. The person who holds the key is someone I cannot steal from for he is heavily guarded.”
“Why did you run away?”
He didn’t say anything for a while. His head was bowed and I wondered whether he fell asleep. Then he lifted his head and looked at me squarely in the eyes.
“Because I killed my master.”