They were put to work, after a month of being placed in a dark, dingy cell and starved half to death. The strongest amongst them were taken to the grounds where the Sultan was building his palace. They whipped into submission along with slaves from every walk of life as they started the back-breaking work. The men, who were in a weakened condition, were soon getting back their strength with a daily regimen of hard physical work, food and water.
Wiley’s comrade from the Dneiper River was back at the cell too sick to work. He swore he would find him when they make their plan to escape. Four of the Russian soldiers who were prisoners vowed to get back to their homeland. They would get strong and watch for the opportunity to escape. Of the many slaves working in the encampment there were only a few they could communicate with. They would make their plans amongst themselves.
When the opportunity availed itself the four men crept away from the open area where they had worked for two months during a distraction they created when they alerted the other slaves that they were leaving. Wiley was able to communicate with one of the German slaves to get a good idea of where they were in the Empire.
The German man and three of his companions left with them. The German man and the men with him didn’t want any thing to do with the prison break, but they knew some of the men still at the prison but didn’t hold out much hope that they would be able to travel.
The prison was abandoned, the bodies of the prisoners were found where their captors left them. Of the twelve men only two were barely alive, they carried them off and thought they would at least give them a proper resting place when the time came.
After two days of freedom they felt their chances of escape were getting better. The wide open plains of the steppe left little area to cover themselves from any number of the dangers that surrounded them. When they heard the approach of a large band of men on horses Wiley decided this was as good of a place as any to die.
Wiley’s friend was left behind at the cell and the years of war and torture at the hands of the Turks hardened his heart. The one light in his life had grown dim and he began to wonder if Katia was a dream he conjured up for his own sanity.
Wiley was about to engage the men and prayed for an arrow through the heart. Hans called out a word of challenge. The band of men slowed and Wiley stood in amazement as they rode past him to his German friend.
That night they found themselves encamped with the Cossacks that patrolled the Russian border. Hans and several of his companions were comrades and were taken in a conflict several months prior. They were treated like long lost friends, food, vodka, wine and a soft place to fall. The two injured men were tended to. None of the men had any desire to leave the band of warriors and wanted to continue their war against the Turks and get revenge for their comrades.
The Cossacks traveled east to bring the injured men to a post and from there they would find their way home. Wiley became fast friends with Hans and they both continued to ride with the Cossacks as they enforced boundaries of the Russian border and defended the outposts along the way.
They roamed the dangerous steppes and once in a while they would encounter a sich where they would be welcomed and treated like kings. Soon word would spread of the new recruits that visited the strongholds along the Eastern Steppes.
When the emissary sent by the Tsar reached the sich he was able to get word back to Moscow that the man they sought was now riding with the Cossacks and had been in Kreispnia one month earlier.
General Gordon received the missive and sent word back immediately for Wiley to read when he next arrived at the sich. He decided to go to the Dom Kossacks to give a personal plea to get word to WIley.
Wiley and Hans had spoken of their homeland and thought they would return there someday when their desire for revenge wore away. Wiley barely remembered his homeland but knew his father was there, if he was still alive. He could never go home to his mother and sister. He was a trained killer and a savage mercenary, he was lost to any of the decency that he left behind six years ago
“I have a mother and sister in the Foreign Quarter outside Moscow. my friend Pavel was wounded and is home now I believe, most likely chasing my sister around.” Wiley told his comrade Hans.
“A foreign boy fighting for the Russians, that’s a story.” Hans mentioned.
“The Tsar was the reason my friend and I joined. We spent hours dreaming about the new traditions, it was exciting to be part of it.”
“What do you think of your Tsar now?”
“He died, he was just one and twenty. A terrible tragedy, then a struggle for the throne and a Regency with no effective command of the Ottoman front. I am putting my efforts into the hopes that the young Tsar Peter will pick up where Tsar Feodor left off. Meanwhile I’m killing those who killed so many of my friends.”
For the life of her Katia couldn’t believe that Wiley was free to come home and hadn’t. It was a fortnight to her wedding. She was aware of the contingent being sent to the Dneiper River led by General Gordon and decided she would follow them, she didn’t care if she died in the process. She left a missive for Dmitriy, begging for his forgiveness and to forget her.
That night after midnight she left her chamber and donned the clothing she had put aside for herself. She would have to steal a horse and Ebony would be the best option for her to get where she needed to go.
She decided she would say goodbye to Fiona, she knew she would stop her if she could, but that wouldn’t happen. Fiona had married Herr Boer and was now living at the farmhouse located near the Summer Palace.
Willow had left her room and was waiting in the stable for her love to arrive. She was a farmer’s daughter and he was the eldest son of the Baron who owned all the land surrounding the farmhouse and stable she called home now.
They embraced as they fell together into the straw she had placed in the empty stall.
“I was afraid you couldn’t come, I know our time together is precious. I have missed you so.”
“We have got to make this more official, Willow. We will be married someday.”
“At least I don’t have a betrothal thrust upon me like Katia. How awful that she is going to marry Dimitry Vasilliovich, not that he is so objectionable but he is not Wiley.”
“Wiley is a fool, he is back to being his old self, getting in his own way and fighting the world.”
“I pray for him Pavel, I pray for the both of them. What will he do if he should decide to come home and find Katia married, he will kill Dimitry Vasilliovich.”
“That is exactly what will happen they he will spend the rest of his life in prison and Katia will have neither of them nor will she have hope of any happiness.”
“Enough talk Pavel, kiss me please, and show me how much you love me.”
When Katia arrived at the stable she recognized the rider leaving in the direction of the Foreign Quarter. Inside she found Willow all covered with straw and lightly flushed.
“Willow, what are you doing?”
Willow was shocked to see Katia standing there.
“Katia, I was … about to lie,” she had calculated whether she saw Pavel leave or if she would believe a story about how she had fallen asleep in the stable, — unlikely.
“I saw him, Willow. I won’t say a word if you pass a message along to your mother and Pavel of course.”
“You must think me a beast.” she was embarrassed.
“Willow, if Wiley was here ..” tears filled her eyes and she couldn’t speak for a long moment.
“I love you Willow, I have come to say goodbye, I am going to follow General Gordon’s unit to the Don. I have to find him and see for myself that he has truly forsaken us. I don’t believe it, he needs to see me and my determination to have him in my arms again.”
“Katia, that is crazy, you cannot …”
Katia stopped her, “I’m taking Ebony, will you help me?”
Willow continued to try to dissuade her, but completely understood her predicament. “Mother will tell the General and send someone after you.”
“Probably, but I must try. Give me a few days then, before you speak to her, the General will learn about my intentions regardless.”
“You’re not coming home.”
“I cannot, I have defied my father, dishonored my betrothed and ruined any future I may have had. My parents will deny my existence and tell my sisters that I am dead.”
Katia leaned from the saddle to hold Willow’s hand.
“You look like a lad,” she laughed.
“That’s the idea.”