The last escape attempt came closer to working than the others.
Kaladin planned. He prepared. This time—this time—he would succeed, not only in gaining his own freedom, but in helping his fellow slaves.
They had weapons. Staves and a couple dull knives filched from the kitchen, not enough to actually win in a fight, but enough to earn them all execution.
That’s what Kaladin was counting on, in those dark thoughts he never shared with the others. He was done fighting. Done running away only to be dragged back time after time after time. This time, he told himself, he would be free. One way or another.
They didn’t get far. Twenty missing slaves couldn’t go unnoticed for long, and their master sent every guard he had to retrieve them. Six slaves died in the fighting, including Ralo, a Herdazian boy several Weepings younger than Kaladin, whose parents had sold him to the local brightlord for money to feed Ralo’s three younger sisters.
Kaladin didn’t cry for Ralo. He didn’t have any tears left, just a gaping wound inside that tore a little wider with each fallen man.
The fourteen surviving slaves were brought before their master, bruised, bleeding, and stripped of their weapons.
One of the guards bowed and approached the brightlord, Kaladin’s stolen knife in his hand. Kaladin watched the lighteyes stiffen with a dull twisting of satisfaction. Light eyes met dark, and Kaladin smiled a humorless smile.
You don’t own me, he thought. You never will.
The brightlord stared at him only a moment, horror pinching his face, before turning to survey the ragged cluster of slaves. They looked so pitiful, surrounded by guards in crisp uniforms with polished weapons. Children playing at war. They never stood a chance.
Kaladin wished he could have saved them. He’d known this was doomed to fail, but they’d believed he could save them. They’d hoped. Even Kaladin had begun to think there was a chance.
He was storming fool.
“Which one is the leader?” The question was not directed at Kaladin, or at any of the slaves, but at the guards, who exchanged silent, panicked looks.
Kaladin didn’t wait for them to reach a consensus—they’d just as likely point the finger at one of the others.
The brightlord and his guards turned. Kaladin straightened, ignoring the fire in his ribs. He would not be cowed. Not now. Not ever.
Pale blue eyes swept the length of Kaladin’s body, taking in what they’d missed before. He was starved and scarred, his body wasted by eight months of abuse, but his back was not yet bowed. He still remembered how to stand, straight and proud, like a soldier.
The brightlord’s lip curled, and he waved his guards forward. “Kill the others. Make this one watch.”
The air went out of Kaladin’s lungs.
He didn’t mean to speak, but he was too shocked to stop himself. The brightlord smiled, gesturing for two men to hold Kaladin as the guards approached the other slaves. Kaladin twisted in their grasp, wanting to turn away but unable to stop watching as nightmares eight months old returned to haunt him again.
“You intrigue me, boy.”
Kaladin hardly heard the lighteyes. His blood roared in his ears, his heart pounded in time with the guards’ footsteps. The slaves made no move to run, or to fight. They knew what was coming.
“Why fight?” the brightlord pressed. “I can see it in your eyes; you were expecting death.”
One or two heads swiveled Kaladin’s way: slaves close enough to hear, their eyes widening in disbelief. In hurt. Those looks begged him to deny it, to say he hadn’t led them to their deaths.
Kaladin did turn away, then.
Fingers twisted into his hair, dragging his head back around, forcing him to watch. The guards were upon the slaves now, side knives in hand. There would be no honorable death for rebellious slaves. A slit throat was better than they deserved, and still more effort than any lighteyes wanted to expend disposing of darkeyed problems.
No one spoke as the guards carried out their task. Several of the slaves cried out, most lay moaning for long heartbeats as they bled out. Kaladin strained against the guards holding him in place, their fingers like steel on his arms.
It was over in moments.
Thirteen slaves lay dead at his feet.
“So you do care.”
The brightlord approached, his face swimming just out of focus. Only then did Kaladin realize he was crying.
He twisted, trying to wipe his eyes on his sleeve, but the hand in his hair held him tight. He blinked furiously and glared at the brightlord. “Storm off,” he whispered, choking on the emotion he thought he’d buried with Dallet and the others.
A raised eyebrow was all the reaction he got. “You don’t waver when it’s your own death hanging over your head, but when I kill some slaves you’ve known for a month…?”
Was that all?
A stormwall of memories knocked the breath from him. Tending rockbuds under the blazing sun. Beatings when they lagged, or stumbled, or looked sideways at a member of the master’s house. Frantic, whispered plans made in the dead of night and passed from man to man.
Kaladin hadn’t meant to get them involved. He hadn’t meant to care.
The brightlord was talking again, but Kaladin had stopped listening. Dead. The first friends he’d allowed himself to make since Amaram’s betrayal. And now they were all dead.
They pulled on his arms, and he stumbled along, not really seeing where they were headed. What did it matter where they killed him? He’d already lost everything. Again. Only the scent of smoke brought him around, just as they came to a halt. Someone had built a fire here, in a hasty stone ring.
A metal rod had been thrust into the coals.
Kaladin felt cold. He knew what the fire meant, and it wasn’t the freedom he’d been hoping for.
“Shash.” The brightlord lifted the brand from the fire, studying the white-orange glow with a clinical disinterest. “It means dangerous.”
“I know,” Kaladin said, though it was hard to make himself speak around the tightness in his throat. “Why? Why not just kill me?”
The brightlord smiled, his eyes steady on the shash brand. “You intrigue me. A slave who seeks death, yet mourns when his fellows die?” Apparently satisfied with the brand, he turned with it toward Kaladin.
Hands tightened on Kaladin’s arms, but he was too cold, too numb to fight anymore. “A slave who steals weapons and starts a riot,” he said. “And I’ll find a way to do it again. A warning won’t protect the next brightlord.”
The man smiled, as though he knew Kaladin was pleading for death.
“This warning isn’t for the brightlords.”
He didn’t say anything more. He didn’t have to. Kaladin knew.
He wasn’t dangerous. Not to the brightlords, with their Shards and their armies.
The ache inside him reared with new ferocity, searing his soul. He hardly felt the brand as it burned a warning into his skin.
A warning to those who would place their hope in Kaladin Stormblessed.