Three days had transpired, and they were on the march. One of the senior soldiers had gratefully explained to them the details of cart duty, glad that he no longer had to do it.
“Here’s how ya work it.” He had said, smiling as a few others watched. “Whenever ta’ cart gets stuck in the mud, or breaks a wheel, or ta’ load shifts and puts it off ta’ center, we stop and take a break, while you two’s fixes it. Got it?”
Aven shook his head in dismay, then remembered to nod that he understood. Taalon just groaned.
“Good. Nofing to it really.” The soldier added for good measure, then went off to the front of the column.
It was almost a good thing, though, that they had been given the worst job. The cart was always at the back, as it moved the slowest, and since they were supposed to watch it, they were able to stay at the rear of the column and talk, though, there wasn’t much left to talk about.
For the past two days they had told each other everything they had experienced from the time they were separated. Aven hadn’t done much but stay in hiding and earn enough money to feed himself by doing odd jobs for farmers and ranchers. But Taalon had information that Aven was grateful to hear, but it caused his heart to ache.
“When we broke up,” he had said, “You remember the troop of soldiers that were following us?”
“Well, they had split up to, and I didn’t notice. I, I should have, but I was more worried about your brother, he was lagging behind a little.”
It was like Aios, always slow. He had probably stopped to look at something he deemed interesting. Taalon continued, “We tried to follow you, but got mixed up in the barracks, trying to lose the soldiers, so we had to decided on a different route. I knew that Aios wasn’t tall enough to climb on top of the buildings, so we stuck to the ground. Then we ran into trouble. The second group of soldiers found us. We were forced to turn down an alley, and there was no way out of it except for up. I was able to climb on top of a roof, but Aios just couldn’t reach. The soldiers came down and tried to get us to surrender. I…I told them they could go to Leige.”
Aven chuckled lightly. It wasn’t like his friend to use strong language, but he could picture him doing it.
“I was worried for Aios, so I jumped back down to help him up. As I was doing so, one of the soldiers grabbed onto me and pulled me back, while two others went for your brother. I took one of their short swords and….” Taalon shook his head and looked down at his hands. “I don’t know what came over me, but I killed one of them. I watched his eyes roll back in his head, felt his hot blood on my arm.”
“It was needed.” Aven said. “Otherwise you might not have escaped.”
“I know,” Taalon agreed, “But I didn’t want to do it, and it still haunts me. Aios didn’t fare so well. Being so small and inexperienced, he didn’t know how to fight back. Before I could get to him, the first troop of soldiers arrived to help. I tried to pull Aios out, but they had him pinned to the ground. The soldiers came at me armed when they saw their dead comrade, so I left.”
“Aven, I had to leave. They would have killed me if I hadn’t.”
“What happened to Aios? What happened to my brother?” Aven asked, frightened.
“They have him, Aven, the Empire has him.”
Aven still was having trouble accepting it. He had heard the tales of what happened to those slaves who attempted to escape, but were caught. The harrowing stories of their torture plagued the compounds and did as much good with keeping the slaves in check as any amount of soldiers or walls could.
Unable to come to grips with the thought of his own kin being murdered by the Empire he hated so much, Aven found it hard to do as much as look any of the other soldiers in the eyes. But Taalon had spoken with him and explained that he had to put all thoughts of anger behind him, for now. If they were found out here, it would mean instant death for sure.execution for sure.
But Aven still had one thing on his mind.
“What do you suppose they’ll do with him?” He asked Taalon as they trudged through the semi dry mud. Taalon thought for a moment before speaking.
“I don’t know, but I doubt that they’ll do anything serious. Probably throw him into prison, like so many of the others.”
“You don’t think they’ll torture him, like they did….” He broke off before he finished his sentence, but Taalon knew what he would have said had he continued.
“No, your mother was only treated that way because she was a woman. Aios will be fine, trust me. He’s probably in better shape then we are.”
Aven thought about it, and had to agree. If he didn’t, he would drive himself insane. But there was still that nagging in the back of his head.
He lowered his voice a little and spoke to Taalon, “We have to get out of this.” He said.
“I know, but we have to wait for the right moment. We can’t risk being caught.”
“Are you sure about that. Lots of soldiers desert the army, it happens all the time.” Aven argued.
“I’d hate to hear what the punishment for desertion is.” Taalon countered. “Besides, we’d put ourselves in a bad situation. We’re all ready escaped slaves, we don’t need to have another title placed on our heads.”
Aven nodded in agreement. Taalon was always the one with the sound judgments. He had no reason to mistrust him or his decisions, he was the reason they were able to escape the compounds in the first place.
“Well, whatever happens,” Aven told his friend, “I’m grateful that we were able to find each other again, even if it meant we ended up in this situation.”
“About that. Look, Aven, I’m sorry, it was my fault, my folly. I should have had the brains not to drink, but I didn’t want to raise questions.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it, I had to drink some as well. It was forced upon us, we had no control over the situation.” Aven elbowed Taalon in the side and smiled, trying to cheer him up. “Besides, I don’t think Corrys will pronounce eternal damnation upon our souls for drinking once to save our lives. What kind of a God would he be then?”
Taalon hadn’t thought about it that way. “I see what you’re saying. But one things for sure, I’m never going to drink again.” He rubbed his temple. “My head still aches.”
“Can’t say you didn’t deserve that one.” Aven laughed. “You were really, really drunk. I think you owe me one.”
“Yes! Come on, after the beating I took too save your butt.”
“Ahh, well, send me a bill. I heard you gave a pretty sound beating to the rest of them as well?”
Aven’s smile faded. “It happened again.” He said to Taalon, who knew what he was talking about.
“Was it big?”
“No, I tried to control it as best I could, but I was just so…angry. I couldn’t help myself. I don’t know if anyone really paid much attention or not. I’m worried that someone noticed, though, and will nonchalantly mention it to someone else in the future. I don’t know if it’s anything important, but…you know how people react to strange things.”
They both grew somber, both thinking about what might be in store or them in the future.
“Aven?” Taalon said, breaking the silence.
“I’m sorry about your brother, I truly am. I just wish that I could go back and change things. I’d-”
“I know you would, we both would. I would tell him not to try at all. He was to young, to naive. To uncoordinated.”
They walked in silence, the regiment trudging on ahead of them. The wagon shifted as it bumped over some rocks and the beasts hauling them lowed, as if to say, “Quite bouncing around!” Aven had never seen their kind before. But then, he had never really seen any animals except for the few they were allowed to use in the compounds. Taalon, on the other hand, had been on many of the trips to the city, where they raised the massive statues, carved in effigy of the Emperor. He had seen much on their short walks through the streets.
In that moment, Aven realized that he was going to have to start getting used to things being different.
Very, very different.