As leaves scattered from the trees in mid-Autumn, the air chilled. After work, when the darkness came earlier, the farmer allowed Krea to bring food and a hot drink to Ned in the outhouse beneath the dark walls of Malaxia. In front of the roaring fire, Ned ate, drank and talked with Krea. He told her about his time in jail and the march with Kroll’s men. But he talked most about living in the Foijen, a land far away. The woodland on the other side of the swamp was similar to the Foijen, but it was warmer in the forests further South. Krea was fascinated with his tales of afar because all she had ever known was Malaxia where everything was cold and damp. Mist hovered above the swap and moss grew everywhere. Krea told Ned the only people allowed beyond the border swap were soldiers and merchants.
Malaxian citizens seemed always to have coughs or sniffles. Even in the summer, it did not warm up much and sleet in the milder seasons was not uncommon. Cows and horses had thick coats and the only crops planted were hardy ones. As the soldiers who force-marched him to Malaxia were all tall and broad-shouldered, Ned expected everyone in the fortress town to be similar. He was surprised when he found they were about the same size as the people back home. He heard Kroll’s men were hand-picked to be fit and powerful warriors, which must be why they were so big.
After their nightly talks, Krea took Ned’s plate and mug back to the farmhouse. The boy settled down by the warmth of the fire and watched the burning embers late into the night. Being active from morning ‘til night was good for him. And it was a relief not being under the constant threat of death.
Eventually restless sleep came to the boy, but it was often fraught with nightmares about shackles and being choked by chains. The hardships he endured had taken their toll. He often woke with a feverish judder, taking some time to realise he was not in the dungeons anymore. Although sleep was troubled by past misery, Ned knew how good his life now was, despite the fact he was only a slave. About a year ago, he was gaunt and small. Now he had grown and even had muscles. The physical work was building him up. But he had to keep mentally tough as times were uncertain.