A grave somberness lay heavy on the air, and time itself seemed to freeze until the slaves were drawn out of their reverie by the sound of Lenny riding back to their perch. Rather than dismounting he steered the horse towards the line of slaves, all the more to intimidate them as he spat out his obligatory threats.
“All of you take heed!” he snarled down to their still-bowed heads, the bloodlust lingering in his eyes. “There are never any second chances for escapees here. I will gladly ride into town with an empty rope than be made a fool of!” He reached the end of the line and found the only slave daring to look him in the eye. “You, however,” he pointed his finger to Jules and nodded approvingly. “You will be rewarded when we arrive at town. Not with money, your next master would just take that, but I’ll buy you a proper meal before the auction.”
Jules nodded appreciatively, then lay back down on the ground, determinedly turning his back to the other slaves so as to not meet their gazes. With a final curse Lenny circled his horse round and went back to the fire where Bartholomew and Harry were waiting. The three sat around the low blaze, muttering in dark voices until at last they were calmed enough to return to their sleep.
The next morning when Lenny roused the slaves to their feet he had the good sense to not ask about the fresh corpse at the end of the line. He simply cut Jules’s body free, and stomped back to his horse, anxious to move the party away from that place. Bartholomew had followed behind him with the key to unlock the prisoner’s fetters but Lenny barked at him not to.
“No more kindnesses for this lot!” he ordered, spinning around in his saddle to face the slaves. “You may thank your friend William for that.”
There came the tug on the rope and they all lurched into their march. Though they moved onwards, that spirit of death persisted with them as they went. Of course things would have already been grim for one of their own to be killed, but it was all the more so when that one was William Gray.
It was only now with his loss that they fully realized how deeply they had let him penetrate their broken natures. There had been a sense of hope in their lives again, though in what exactly they could not say. Something better, and strangely enough something internal. Something long dormant within them all had been awakened by William’s fire, and now that he was gone they were afraid to lose that part of them again.
The guards felt a weight, too, but for them it was a far more damning sensation. Though William had been only a slave there was a part of them that knew he was more elevated than they, and so it felt out of place to have claimed his life. Perhaps they had possessed his body, but they had never had power over his spirit as with the other slaves. Now that free spirit seemed to stalk them, judging and condemning them for his spilled blood. His memory brought to the surface all that they despised within themselves, and they became, if possible, more harsh and cold to the world. Almost frantically they drove the team onwards, anxious to reach their destination and see if the local tavern couldn’t craft a brew that might lift the spell they were under.
Over one hill and then another they marched, and as they went Robert did not lift his eyes once. Quite possibly he felt the weight of William’s absence most of all. He alone knew that William had intended for him to stand as defender for these poor souls and, fool as it sounded, he really wished that he could. Robert was discovering that a far worse fate than living as nothing was to believe that it could be otherwise. He was drawn out of these thoughts, though, as the line slowed to a stop and a few gasps of shock echoed from their party.
Looking up William saw that the hill they had been climbing was crowned by a small fortress. The layout of the walls and the five towers above them answered exactly to the form William had described of his regal home. There was even the red and yellow banner fluttering above the structure. Robert was so shocked by the manifestation of William’s dreams that it took him a moment to register that something was wrong about the image though.
This place was obviously deserted and uncared for, and clearly had been so for decades. Twenty, maybe thirty years judging by the way the vines had grown across the rock walls and even pulled patches of them down to the earth. Indeed, if William had not planted the idea of a lion holding a flower into Robert’s mind he doubted he would have been able to make out its faint form on the frayed and weathered banner overhead.
Robert did not dwell long on this mystery, though, for he now noticed the anxious way their three cruel masters were leaning into one another and conversing in hushed whispers. That riddle he understood in a moment: they were afraid whether they had, in fact, slain a lord the night before and whether it might become known. The three mercenaries finished their contemplation, and accordingly Harry and Bartholomew spurred their horses down opposite walls of the fortress, no doubt circling the place to make sure it truly was as deserted as it appeared. Meanwhile Lenny swung his leg out of the saddle and dropped to the ground, advancing on the slaves with a grim determination in his face.
“See here, now,” he menaced as he strode down the line, looking each of them in the eyes in turn. “I know that you’re wondering if this structure isn’t the very fulfillment of that fool William’s prophecies.” He spat. “Not a chance. Our dearly departed friend merely saw this place while traveling with his prior master, and in his delusions made up that he belonged here. His mind was as broken and empty as the walls of this place, so he found he felt it a true home to him. Do you understand?
Lenny had made his way to the end of the line, turned behind their backs and strode up the line the other way. He prodded each one of them firmly between the shoulder blades as he continued his speech, his voice becoming more strained with passion.
“I said it before. I am not going to be made a fool of by the likes of you. If any of you so much as breathe the name ‘William’ when we get to town I will haul you out in the public square and murder you with my bare hands!” His voice was screeching now, and rather than prodding he had taken to gripping them from behind and shaking. He reached the end of the line and turned back around, coming along their faces again, his own contorted in pure rage.
“Do you understand me?! I will kill every mongrel of you. Inch. By. INCH!”
Lenny had reached Maggie who squirmed under his glare. He gripped her in his rough hands and slid his fingers around her throat, slowly choking the life out of her. “DO YOU DOUBT ME?!” he frothed, and Robert knew Lenny was debating whether he should kill her to make an example to the rest of them or not. All the other slaves were numb with horror, but Robert’s own heart was racing. He didn’t feel the hopelessness the rest of them did, he had the terrifying and electrifying realization that he could resist this.
William would not have waited this long. The thought, unbidden, flashed across Robert’s mind, and without another pause he turned and bolted towards Lenny and Maggie, bursting his iron fetters off with a sharp snap of the wrists. He wrapped his freed arms around Lenny and tackled him to the ground, all of the other slaves staring in amazement at the miracle he had seemingly just performed.
Lenny roared like an animal, and began pummeling Robert’s sides with his fists. He got his foot up between the two of them and kicked out, sending Robert crashing to the ground a few feet away. Lenny curled up to a crouch, reaching down to his side for the hilt of his sword.
During their struggle one of the other slaves, Bert, had been looking back and forth from Robert’s open shackles to his own around the wrists. A question was in his face, and with a hopeful grin he thrust his arms apart, bursting his iron lock open as well. In a moment he had leapt to Lenny’s side and pinned his arm so that he could not draw his sword.
Robert was as amazed by this development as everyone else, and as he ran forward to help Bert wrestle with Lenny the other nine prisoners tried to burst their bands as well. They all broke free. With a laugh Robert realized William had stuffed all of their locks!
Four more of the slaves rushed forward to help secure their foe, but an angry voice called out, and they turned to see Bartholomew and Harry rushing at them with drawn swords! Casting his eyes around for an escape, Robert spotted a break in the fortress’s wall near to them. He called to his comrades to follow him as he dashed towards it. They thrust Lenny to the ground and rushed across the grass. As they reached the toppled rubble they scrambled into the courtyard on the other side and Robert continued casting his eyes around for their next avenue of escape.
He wasn’t searching for just anything, though, he knew what he was looking for, and at last he found it. “Just keep following me,” he assured the others as he took off towards the door at the base of the tallest tower. The rest of the crew followed him across the courtyard, and as they reached the door they heard the sounds of their three pursuers scrambling through the same hole in the wall that they had come through.
Robert wrenched the heavy door open and waited for his companions to clear the threshold. “Up those stairs!” he commanded, pointing to the steps spiraling upwards. “All the way to the top! Do not stop!” As the last of the slaves cleared the space he slammed the door shut. There were brackets on either side of the door to hold a restraining beam, and looking to the ground he saw the corresponding length of wood. He quickly slid it into place, just as a thump on the other side of the door signaled the arrival of their pursuers. The rotting wood would not hold them for long.
Robert bounded up the steps with an incredible energy, and as he reached the other slaves he quickened his pace still, moving to their front. After all he alone knew what it was he hoped to find at the top of this tower. Beneath them they heard the wrenching sound of the tower door finally breaking inwards.
Looking up Robert saw the trapdoor that signaled the end of their staircase and the entry into the crowning room. He heaved his shoulder against the barrier, but it wasn’t locked, and so he tumbled into a large, open room. He scrambled back to his feet as the other slaves filed into the room behind him, looking around at the majestic bedroom they had just entered.
A few decades ago it would have been ornate and lavish, but now the colors were faded and the perfumes were spoiled. Against the back wall there still stood a massive portrait, and on its faded canvas could still be made out the memory of a noble family. Both the lord and lady were beautiful and dark-haired, a deep contemplation etched into their eyes. In contrast to them was the young lad that sat on his father’s knee. His golden curls wreathed a face shining with pure joy and innocence. He could not have been any older than four or five.
Robert could not dwell on the image, though, he was already dashing to the corner of the room where his hopes were being answered in the form of a suit of armor, standing to attention on its wooden frame. Though it was coated in dust and grime, its fine craftsmanship could not be concealed. Ornate carvings stood sprawled across its perimeters, and its steel was overlaid in places with golden figures. The greatest of these figures was that of the lion with a flower in its mouth, emblazoned across the whole of the breast.
“Help me with this,” Robert ordered, lifting the helmet off and tossing it to one slave. He pulled up the cuirass and handed it to another two. There remained a coat of chainmail on the frame and Robert nodded to another two of the slaves as he held his arms out to receive the armor.
Understanding set in and soon all hands were at work, pulling the chain over his head and around his arms, buckling the cuirass over it, locking the helmet over his head. Meanwhile others were clasping the greaves around his legs and last of all the magnificent sword was placed reverentially into his open palm. The slaves stood back, marveling at the specter that stood before them now, a living embodiment of both rich history and hopeful future.
Robert took his first awkward steps, getting a feel for the great weight. He had no experience and no training, but the burden truly rested on his shoulders now and there was no time for second thoughts. Even now they could hear the footfalls of the slavers nearing their perch. Robert turned towards the trapdoor and raised his sword.
“All of you behind me,” his voice echoed from within his helmet, and the slaves did not hesitate to obey. He had no training or experience, but he knew he needed to calm his racing heart. He settled his frantic breaths into something long and controlled. He tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt and closed his eyes, listening to the footfalls growing louder. He discerned that there were three sets of them, and in his mind’s eye he measured the time before they would be spilling into their room. He counted. One. Two. Three. Four.
Eyes flashing open Robert charged. He barreled to the lip of the trapdoor and down the steps just as Bartholomew appeared at the top of them. Bartholomew’s wide expression of shock was visible for only a moment before Robert had collided into him and sent him flailing backwards down the stairs. Behind Bartholomew, Harry and Lenny awkwardly leapt over the body, leaving it to bounce violently down the stone until it came to a permanent rest some two dozen steps below.
Harry was next, and in desperation he swung his sword at Robert, but the blade clattered uselessly off the armor as Robert cut him down with a single, controlled motion. Lenny took a step backwards to assess the situation, and Robert could see that Lenny’s eyes roved over every gap in Robert’s metal. Beneath the helmet Robert ground his teeth together in determination, raising his sword to chest height as Lenny did the same.
At the same moment Lenny charged up the steps as Robert bounded down them. Lenny turned the point of his sword forward and jabbed it up, while Robert swung his in a wide arc. The two blades collided and Lenny’s brittle metal shattered into a hundred pieces. Unopposed Robert’s sword continued in its swing, passing into Lenny and cutting the cord of his life in a flash.
Robert stood panting, watching Lenny’s lifeless form fall away. His chest heaved and he reached his hand to the wall for support. He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you.” He let a few more moments pass, then turned and stepped back up into the bedroom, all the other slaves encircling him in awe.
Maggie came forward with a old rag she had found and reverently cleaned the bloodied blade. His hands free, Robert unclasped the helmet and viewed his fellow slaves. No, his fellow freemen and freewomen.
“We are The House of Gray” he declared.
“The House of Gray” ten voices echoed.
As I said in my previous post, my intention with this story was to give an examination of a character discovering his true self. Specifically I wished to examine the notion of a person discovering their true calling within another, such as Robert being given his duty and example from William. While William calls Robert to the work, though, it is Robert who actually does that work and therefore earns the noble identity he possesses by the end of the story.
Personally I am glad that I took the time to do this piece in two halves, and as I said on Monday I feel that that truly does a greater justice to the work than if I had to rushed it in half the time. In either case we have now concluded this series of stories, and next week we’ll return with an entirely new category. Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then.