Robert remembered the moment he first met Lord William Gray distinctly. Lenny had just finished shoving the man into the mud and then stomped away, ordering Robert to lift him back out. William had fallen in face first, and with his hands bound behind his back he started to kick wildly for fear of drowning in the filth. Robert gripped him around the shoulders, pulled him up to a kneeling position, then helped support him as he rose to a stand.
After spitting enough mud to the side that he could speak again William gurgled out a “Thank you, sir.”
“You ought not talk back to the guards like that,” Robert gruffly reprimanded as he brushed the mud from William’s eyes and nose. He gave a glance to the guards in question, but for the time being the three of them were huddled around a map a few dozen feet distant. No doubt they were trying to determine which district of Cotswolds their party was lost in now.
“Thank you, again,” William repeated as at last his face was clear enough that he could open his eyes. He was tall, with golden locks that fell to his shoulders. He held himself in an upright and dignified manner, one that did not fit with his dirty station. “It was a matter of principle, you see. They don’t have the right to speak to me that way.”
“You’re a slave,” Robert shrugged. “You don’t have any rights.”
“Well, in the first case, even a slave has the common rights of all men, and in the second case, I’m not properly a slave either, you see I am–”
“Lord William Gray, I know. I heard. You were being quite emphatic on that point when they brought you in.”
“Hm,” William pursed his lips. “And what about your name, sir?”
“Please don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore, I don’t want them thinking I need a shove in the mud as well. I’m simply Robert.”
“And what is your surname?”
“I’m simply Robert.”
“Well, Robert, I am indebted to you. I won’t forget this, and I will repay.”
“I’m sure you will,” Robert said dryly. Then stepped back as the guards came back from their huddle to the line. They were called Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew, and each of them bore the scowling mark of a man that maintained a constant hatred. This hatred was as necessary to sustaining them in their work as food and drink, for without it they would never be able to keep their consciences at bay.
“Now you listen,” Lenny spat as he grabbed William by the shoulder and cut the rope off of his wrists with a rusted knife. “I’ll have no more of your backtalk. You’re in a rough bind, I know, but I’ve bought you fair and square.” He pulled William’s hands round to the front where he tied them again, and then fastened the cord to a long rope. This rope ran the full length of thirteen slaves and held them in their line. “You see that I spare you the irons, at least until night? I make things as nice for you as I reasonably can. So don’t give me your guff. Save it for the master I sell you to!” He gave the knot he was tying one more tug, then turned and mounted his nearby horse, the one to whom the line of slaves was secured.
Robert was fastened to the rope directly behind William, and could see from the way his shoulders were rolling back that he was inhaling deeply, no doubt preparing to call a reply to Lenny.
“Don’t say it!” Robert hissed and William froze. “You’re part of the line now, and that means all the rest of us are liable to pay for whatever trouble you stir. I hate Lenny, but what he says is true. If you must fight back, wait until you’re sold off on your own and none of us will be harmed for it.”
William was still for a moment, clearly giving Robert’s words sincere consideration. “I understand,” he finally replied, keeping his voice low so they would not be overheard. “I do not intend to subject myself to these injustices, but you’re right that I have to consider all of you. You’re my brethren now, and I mustn’t do anything until I’ve convinced each of you to fight alongside me.”
Robert was spared coming up with a response to this strange declaration as Lenny urged the horse into a trot and the whole line of sorry souls lurched forward into their march. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, passing over one rolling hill after another. As far as the eye could see in each direction was nothing but long, green grass with the occasional sprinkling of bare, gray rocks to break up the pattern. Above them the sky was overcast by a multitude of thin, wispy clouds, diffusing the sunlight into a universal ambience. It might have been an lovely scene, were it being viewed by less dismal souls.
When Robert had first joined Lenny’s party there had only been three others, wretches whose masters had sold them off to cover debts, just as Robert’s had done. As they took a winding course through the hill-lands, their numbers had increased one-by-one until they now marched thirteen long. They were destined for the auction houses in one of the main cities, where Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew would sell them at a decent profit.
Until this William fellow, all the slaves in their party had come in quietly. Years of servitude had long conditioned them to the rough manner in which they were treated, and the prospect of leaving one master for another was a familiar passage. But William was different. From the first moment Lenny brought him he had shown the signs of an unbroken spirit. He had proudly explained that he was in actuality a royal lord, waylaid on the road by a band of highwaymen, mistaken by them for a rich servant, and then sold into slavery at their hand.
Everyone in the party, slave and slaver alike, dismissed his story out of hand. The general consensus was that the poor man was insane, and likely it was for this condition that his prior master had chosen to sell him away. Where many of their band considered this a great source of fun and teased William for his sincerity of delusion, Robert could only shake his head in pity. He knew there must come a time where this dreamer would be forced back to his cruel realities, and Robert could not wish that crushing on anyone.
If Robert was honest with himself, though, it was not pity alone that he felt for the man. He could not help having a wonder and a fascination for him, too. At the close of each day, as they sat around their evening fire, one of their crew would invariably ask William for stories of his home and prior life. At first they had done this to mock him, but he spoke with such a fervor and richness of detail that it was impossible to not be captivated by the visions he spun. Night-by-night, the slaves’ faces became less cynical and mean, changing into something softer and longing. For a blissful hour they would forget their pitiful lives and saw the world of William as if in a trance.
They seemed to feel the summer wind blowing, fluttering out the red and yellow banner of his ancestors above their heads. They saw its emblem, that of a lion holding a long flower in its mouth. They lowered their eyes from its billowing form and found themselves on the parapet of a strong and imposing fortress. With William they passed the attendants and soldiers on either side, each bowing or saluting in turn. They followed him up the spiral staircase to the lord’s chambers at the peak of the tallest tower. They heard the din of workers below and the singing of the birds above. They smelled the perfumes and the salts from the bath, the starch and the dye from the laundry. They saw the wardrobe filled with rich and colorful garments, the complexity of design stitched into the thick rugs covering the floor. They felt the soft warmth of the feather pillows, the cold hardness of the his fine suit of armor’s steel.
Only one of the slaves remained immune to William’s magic. Jules had enjoyed listening to the stories at first, but after a time said it made him frustrated to hear dreams that could never be real. Fantasy made his reality unbearable, and so he would always excuse himself from the rest of the party when the tales began and brood elsewhere on his own.
It wasn’t as though William only offered intangibles to his fellow slaves, though. He was just as gracious with his daily food portions as he was with his words. He explained that the other slaves had not been properly nourished through life as he had, and so they needed the food more. Each time he would look them firmly in the eye and assure them that they would make it out alright. No one doubted that he truly believed it, and that he truly intended to share his better life with them all. Perhaps they were still not ready to believe William’s tales, but they did come to believe in him.
Though the three slave-traders heard bits and pieces of William’s lordly stories, they didn’t harass him any further than to occasionally make fun of his madness. William had kept his word and refrained from giving them any more trouble. That proud defiance never dimmed in his eye, but he held his tongue at their jeering. In fact he seemed to be saddened that they chose to be his enemies rather than his friends.
William’s intended rebellion never came to fruition either. Although William had gained the slaves’ appreciation, he was not any closer to winning their fighting spirit. A failing he admitted to Robert one night after all the others had fallen asleep. At night the line lay on the bare ground in their marching order, still tethered to the line though now with iron fetters. As William and Robert were neighbors in the line they would often hold whispered conversations as the others drifted out of consciousness.
“I know I have to take this next step alone,” William was saying. “For a while there I had an ambition of us all raising up together and overpowering our captors. We outnumber them by ten, after all, but I have come to see that this isn’t in your nature to do.”
“Well of course not!” Robert shook his head. “We may outnumber them, but they’re still armed and we are not. Even if we were to overpower them, some of us would die in the effort.”
“Yes,” William nodded solemnly, “and I would be the first. But I would do it.”
Robert scoffed. “Then your escape attempt wouldn’t do you any good, would it?”
“Would I not be free then?” William smiled. “And my people would be free, too.”
“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”
“Of course. As I said before, you are my brethren. You are all of you of the House of Gray now.”
Robert just smiled and shook his head. “I must admit that being of the House of Gray still feels pretty drab right now.”
“You joke tonight, but soon you will see. The time of our liberation is soon upon us.”
“Oh?” Robert asked in amusement. “How soon?”
William grinned, raised his iron shackles up to where Robert could see them, gave a tug and the lock sprang open! Robert started, and snapped his gaze over to the fire around which the slave traders spent their nights. All three were still asleep. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
“I had a moment alone with the fetters the other day and stuffed mine full of grass. The lock can’t catch properly.”
Robert stared at this revelation. “But what are you doing?”
“As fortune would have it, I know these lands. These brutes have been leading us straight towards my very home, the one I’ve told you all about. It isn’t even a full day’s journey ahead. If our overlords see it as I have described and realize that I have been telling the truth I’m sure they will be very moved, though probably not towards doing me any kindness! My only chance is to get away tonight.”
Robert grimaced. “William, please don’t do this. You’re just going to die out there on your own.”
“I know you don’t believe me, Robert. I forgive you for that. But I’ll be restored to power within twenty-four hours and come back for you all! I’ve been gone long enough that the servants have likely abandoned the homestead, but there are enough hidden treasures in the place that I can immediately hire mercenaries and free you. Then all of us will live in my halls and we’ll build the House of Gray anew!” There was a joyful fire in William’s eyes, an excitement to at least be at his moment of action.
But Robert could not match his enthusiasm. “William, in spite of my better senses I really do like you. And honestly I do want to believe in your tales. Even without the promise of being a part of your court, I just like to imagine that such a place as you describe is really out there somewhere…. But dreams only have a place in us when we don’t get lost in them.”
William smiled in pity. “So you assume I am mad and off to my doom. What of it? Let me go, then. It is my choice.”
Robert nodded. “I suppose you have that right.”
William grinned broadly. “A slave has ‘rights’ do you say? Perhaps I’ve made a change in you yet! And that’s why I trust you with what I must ask next Robert. Listen to me close. I make a new man of you, I have that right as well. No longer are you to be ‘simply Robert,’ I pronounce you Robert Gray.” William lightly touched each of Robert’s shoulders. It would have been comical were his face not so sincere. “And I am entrusting you with these people until I return. Take care of them and follow the example I’ve set for you. You are my steward until I return.”
In spite of his doubts, Robert’s eyes grew tearful. Whether it was madness or not, something long too still in his heart stirred at the calling.
“Now see to this, I have born your shackles and I have broken them,” William proceeded. He reached down and pulled Robert’s wrists up to eye level. “By which I mean: I stuffed grass into your fetters as well.”
“Just in case. Don’t worry, they won’t notice, you can’t even tell there’s anything different until you give them a sharp tug.”
Robert turned the lock towards him and saw a few telling blades of dead grass poking out from the metal.
“But listen,” William continued. “I must leave now. Will you take this charge to care of the others?”
“Alright, William, that much I can manage.” He nodded. “And who knows? You’re a crazy fool, perhaps, but you also also seem to have luck on your side. You may survive yet!”
“I intend to.” With that William gave him a wink, then began crawling away from the line. He moved as stealthily as he could muster, making for the declining slope at the edge of the plateau where the party currently slept. Robert watched the retreating form, and for a brief moment a part of him entertained the idea that maybe the man really was a lord. Whether crazy or honest, one thing was certain. William simply didn’t belong with a crew as wretched as the rest of them.
“MAN ESCAPING!” A shrill voice split the silent dark. Down at the end of the line Jules had risen to his feet and pointed accusingly at William’s retreating shadow.
“No!” Robert roared, but the damage was already done.
Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew were on their feet in an instant, and had fully apprised the situation after another. Lenny barked at the other two to remain with the line as he sprinted towards the nearest of their horses.
William didn’t even glance backwards, but upon hearing the cry rose to his feet and sprinted full speed, now disappearing down the edge of the plateau.
Lenny threw his leg over the horse, and reached down to its side, pulling out a sword that flashed in the moonlight. He dug his heels deep into the horse’s sides, eliciting a whinny of protest, but then the beast obediently charged forward.
By now all of the slaves were on their feet, motionless as they watched horse and rider drive past them and down the same slope William had gone over. After a moment William returned to their view, a dark form streaking across the large valley that extended ahead. It was a field, open and bare, with nowhere to hide. Though his situation was hopeless, William continued to run, leading further and further away from the camp as now the horse came into view and quickly closed the distance.
As Lenny charged past the fugitive his arm could be made out swinging, catching the form of William with the shining sword and felling him to the ground. William’s body lay still on the ground for a moment as Lenny hauled back on the reins, drawing the horse to a stop. As Lenny dismounted, the prone figure began to lift and fall, haltingly trying and failing to push itself back upright. Lenny advanced purposefully, raised the sword, plunged it down, and stilled the body forever. There was no cry, no flash of lightning to herald the moment, yet all the slaves felt a tremor within and bowed their heads mournfully. All but the traitor at their end.
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.