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Della Boynton, P.O Box 3847, Ft. Myers, Fl. 33918 or see my paypal account. Thank you and enjoy.
(New parts will be highlighted in bold)
Warnings:Slave NCS, humor, battle violence, the usual harsh medieval slave life type of angst,Yaoi,eventual happy ending.
I was there to clean the floors and I looked the part. I had my buckets of water, my caustic soap, and my scrub brushes. My shaggy black hair was long, down my back, so I kept it tied out of my face with a red rag. My clothes were thick leather pants and a loose cotton shirt, stuff I'd found in the garbage that some lord or house servant had tossed away. It was good for getting wet and dirty, and I wasn't about to ruin my mom's good homespun on work like this.
Some people considered me lucky, working in the castle, but I say, cleaning floors is cleaning floors, whether you do it in the stables or in a Prince's private quarters. The scenery might be different, but the job is pretty much the same; on your knees, soap and water on the floor, and scrub brush in hand. Pay is crap, too, since they expect a grateful peasant to be happy with a place on the floor in the common room and at least one meal a day. A penny a day is nothing to sneeze at, either, I suppose, unless you consider that a loaf of bread costs two.
My mom calls me uppity and I've heard her tell her friends, often enough, that I'd be a drunk or midden man by the time I was twenty. Well, I was twenty and I was scrubbing floors. She'd almost been right. Of course, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, you know, or bush, considering that she was southern Pican, short, stout, bad tempered, and a washer woman. Migrating to the north, where people were tall and very intolerant of Picans that weren't, I could also say that she didn't have much for brains either. I, at least, differed from her in that respect, though some people would argue that, and argue hotly, too. I had the brains, but I also had her temper in spades, and it, more than anything else, kept me where I was, cleaning crap off of a princeling's floor.
Where was he anyway? Hunting? Drinking with his cronies? I hoped not drinking. That's what I was cleaning up. Spilled wine and the product of moron's lack of stomach for strong drink. You'd think the man would get a clue after the first few 'accidents', but no....
Something moved and I winced, thinking that someone was catching me glaring and standing around doing nothing, but it was only my own reflection in a mirror, a ghastly expensive round oval that showed most of my upper body. I grinned at it. I looked like a wolf, rough black hair, a sharp face, dark brows that arched up like wings, and eyes that made people cross themselves. One was blue and the other was gold.
I posed. Maybe I was short and slim, but my shoulders were rounded and broad. Well built, I thought, and smoothed hands down my sides proudly. Picans were a hardy people and I didn't feel an ounce of shame for being one, whatever Northern idiots thought. We were not mongrels, or mixed with Dwarves. We were an old and tenacious breed, living on the edges of the forest where the rough lands met the sea.
With some fine clothes, I thought, I could look princely too, certainly more princely than the current idiot who claimed the title. But, I washed floors, as the gods would have it, and I was the son of a washer woman and a Pican father, who hadn't lived to see me clean up vomit from a prince's floor. Good thing, probably, I sighed, and went back to work.
A bit later, hard at work and just wanting it done, I was surprised by the entrance of a lord and several men. Groveling doesn't come easy to me, or lowering my eyes respectfully, or tugging my lock and looking stupid; all keys to success for a palace servant. Instead, I stood up and gave a dip of my head, dripping scrub brush in one hand and my knees wet with soap and water.
I didn't know why they were there and they didn't tell me. I wasn't so above myself that I dared to ask. The lord gave the room a quick look and decided for himself that the prince wasn't there. Ever see a man realize he has a good hand at cards? I saw that look cross his face as his eyes came to rest on me. He was a pudgy, little eyed, bastard, and those little eyes narrowed as he rubbed his chin and looked very pleased.
"Put good clothes on him," the man suddenly ordered, "and then chain him."
What the..? "M'Lord?" I asked, almost squeaking the word.
His men grabbed me and they were too big to fight. I was a good head shorter than they were and they both outweighed me.
"You are now prince Darrel," the lord informed me. "You will be given to the Sorh horde as a hostage. If you deny your new title, they will kill you... in an extremely unpleasant fashion, I imagine."
The Sorh were the bogey men women told their children about to make them behave. Be good or I'll leave you out for the Sorh to eat. We'd heard whispers of Sorh forays, but giving a prince as a hostage... wasn't that something people did when they were surrendering?
"I'm just the floor cleaner!" I protested, finally realizing that I was in a great deal of trouble. "I'm short, I'm dark, and I don't look anything like the prince!"
"What do stupid Sorh know about our people?" The man grunted impatiently. "They defeated us in battle, ruthless and uncaring of how many men they lost. They are one with the beasts. I won't give a prince of the blood to them, the last of his line, to their brutality."
But he was going to give me instead. It takes a bit for that kind of thing to sink in properly, to make someone, who'd been wondering how to get a spot off of the floor only a moment earlier, react. No, I didn't grovel and I didn't beg. I didn't crawl in supplication, either. I have a temper, remember? and I'm Pican. I turned into a snarling, cursing, ball of fists.
I almost made it to the door. Almost isn't good enough, really. They piled on me, ripped off my clothes, stuffed me into foppish velvets and silks, and then chained my hands behind my back. It would have helped my pride if I could have said that it took them a long time to do that, but it didn't. A couple of hard fists in the head make a man damned compliant.
I thought about my mom as they hustled me from the room and half carried me out of the palace. She would probably wonder what had happened to me. I could imagine her telling her friends about how she had been right. Her uppity, strange eyed, bad tempered son, had ended up badly.
I hadn't been outside the city walls since I could walk. It wasn't safe, anyone will tell you, and I had a natural distrust of the wilds outside of city life. I was a creature of the well ordered streets and corner tavern. If there was greenery there, it was being sold in the marketplace. If there was a brawl, a guard appeared to put things to rights. When they tossed me into the back of a small cart and chained me to a post there, I was wide eyed and panicking. That only grew worse when we left the city and took a winding road into the forests and rolling, rocky hills. This was bad, this was very bad, I thought, especially when the guards and mounted knights took up positions around me to foil any escape attempt.
"Do you have a name?" One of the men asked me, though I didn't know why he needed to know it. You didn't ask the calf being taken to slaughter if his name was 'Bully'.
"Lock Moravian," I replied in a voice I wished had been more steady, more defiant. It came out weak and shaky instead.
"Forget that name," the man warned me and fingered the hilt of his blade. "You are now Prince Darrel. Deny that, or forget it, and we will kill you if the Sorh don't. Understand?"
"They won't believe it!" I shouted at them in desperation, but they told me to shut up and ignored me after that until we reached the border.
The cart was rocking a great deal and I grew sick to my stomach as I sat, in misery, and wondered what the Sorh would do with me, with someone who they thought was a prince. Not death, surely not that? I remembered the lord saying something about being a hostage. Hostages stayed alive, didn't they? A dead hostage prince wasn't much use in a game of kings. It was a slim hope, but one I clung to.
We met the Sohr in a rocky vale. Mounted on shaggy ponies, they looked every bit as fierce as the tales described. Armed at every point, dark, broad, and wearing furs and rough tanned leathers, I didn't expect them to know human speech. When one of them came forward to glare at me in the cart, I smelled animal dung, saw that his face was filthy, and almost gibbered in fear when I saw the human finger bones strung around his neck by a leather cord.
The savage talked to one of my guards in a rough accent. My pedigree was given and promises that tribute would be given, along with me, to the Sorh to keep their goodwill and their borders clear.
You can only not respond to your name so many times before someone realizes it doesn't belong to you. Maybe the Sorh did eat their victims and bathe in dung, but they weren't complete idiots. By the time I realized that the man was talking to me, the bluff was over and swords were out. My guard went down so easily that I was screaming curses down on their children's children by the time the dust cleared and I was the only man alive.
I went quiet and small, then, huddling in the cart as the Sorh rode up to it and glared at me. What makes people hold their hand when they've so casually slaughtered so many? Maybe it was the fact that I didn't look like them, that I was short and Pican, and so obviously not their enemy.... or maybe it was my eyes, my two color, gold and blue, eyes? The leader looked longest at them and frowned.
With the smell of death and my own fear heavy in the air, I blinked at the Sorh and wondered why I wasn't dead yet. They didn't enlighten me as to the reason either. Their leader grunted and then made a hand sign. As one, they turned their mounts and headed back across the border, taking me and the cart with them.
"Holy mother fuc-!" I cut that off as I huddled down into my cart as we topped a rise. A very large army of Sorh were massed and waiting for us. Only a few were on horseback and the rest were standing about looking as if they were about to break ranks and start murdering and pillaging on their own. They stunk so bad, my eyes watered and I pulled my shirt over my nose. A standing army doesn't have latrines and animals don't go where it's convenient. That many massed men and animals made one large field of crap and they were all standing in it. It couldn't have been making their tempers any better. What were they going to do when they heard that there wasn't going to be a truce? What would they do to me when they found out that I wasn't the prince?
I had visions of being strung up and displayed for morale purposes, while someone cut me limb from limb, but I doubted that these men needed any more urging than the desire to get out of their own stink to charge into battle. That left a very large question. Why? Why not kill me along with everyone else? I eyed the leader and couldn't help from shivering. I called myself a lap lady and mom's boy, but that didn't make me any braver. When you're looking at that many weapons, and that many barbaric examples of manhood gone very wrong, you start counting your life in minutes.
Flies. They buzzed all around me as the cart came to a halt. A saw a large, half starved dog, nosing about corpses piled off to one side. Knights in armor. My people; the ones who were supposed to keep us safe in the city.
The leader mounted the cart and my heart started pounding as he stood tall and shouted to the horde. He talked in a harsh language, and I doubt that anyone but the first ten rows could hear him, but I was sure that they would tell everyone else what the man had said and get it wrong with each re-telling. This was it, I thought, and wondered if I should pray, make myself ready, or any of those things a person was supposed to do before they died.
I was grabbed by the collar and hauled up. The leader pointed to my eyes and seemed very proud. He shook at me and then spit right in my face. Temper, remember? I didn't have my hands free, but being at a disadvantage had never mattered to me before, and it certainly didn't now. I hurt my own head driving it into his. He staggered, but didn't fall as I'd hoped. I would have jammed a boot into his gut if he had, and hopefully gotten some kicks to the head in as well. He hadn't been handed his title for being diplomatic, though, and his surprise was very brief. A fist went into my gut and I doubled over and almost threw up.
Laughter. That was a shock. The leader was shouting to the crowd again and shoving a boot into my traumatized gut. He said to me, under his breath, "If you don't show your belly to me, I'll feed your balls to the dogs."
I looked upward and saw his bloody, savage face looking at me as if he had everything under control, as if my attack had been a child swatting at butterflies. It was all for the crowd, of course, and I knew the game without being handed the rules. He was the brave war leader and I was the defeated enemy. My eyes were part of the game, too, and I began, as I wheezed air back into my lungs, to realize that these barbarians might be even more superstitious than my adopted people.
I was hauled to my feet and sent tumbling from the cart. I rolled hard, but it saved me from breaking bones. The leader jumped down from the cart after me, grabbed me again, and pulled me through the army. Men laughed, prodded, and slapped at me as I passed. One grabbed my ass. Another shoved his sword hilt at a spot between my ass cheeks suggestively. I whirled and cursed, kicking out and catching that bastard in the balls. He went down and they almost surged, almost decided that I was more fun dead, but the leader had his sword out and he saved my life once again.
There was a point where men, dung, and stink ended and tents began. Most were squat, communal tents, but the leader had his own personal one staked out on a rise above the rest. There was a spare horse tied outside and two dogs staked apart for reasons that became known to me as we approached. They tried to attack each other, fangs barred and hackles raised. They barked and snarled, two males who hated one another.
The leader must have lost a dog. There was a third chain and collar laying discarded between the two dogs. It was attached to a stout post. The collar went around my throat, a broad leather thing that smelled like it's former owner. I could have removed it in an instant, if my hands hadn't been tied, but it was suddenly made very clear to me, that, even if my hands were free, escaping would have been a very large mistake. The dogs couldn't reach each other, but they could reach everything else. The leader had a free pass, but no one else did. One man came too close and he went scrambling backwards with a chunk of arm missing. The attacking dog barely chewed as it swallowed the flesh with relish.
Huddling on the ground, still sore in the gut, the leader left me and strode into his tent. He came out a moment later hefting a large oval shield. On it were two interlocking circles, one gold and one blue. I'm anything but slow. I was an omen. A pretty powerful thing for a leader to have when he was trying to control a savage horde of armed men who didn't have the sense not to pee where they stood.
The leader hefted the shield into the air and shouted. The army went wild, cheering and brandishing weapons. I worried about my mom, and I spared a thought for the city, but mostly I was wondering how long the life of a good luck charm lasted.
They left camp at a full charge, and I'd never imagined such a noise of clashing armor, tramping feet, screaming animals, and the rising roar of hundreds of voices. I could see why the city had fallen without an actual assault on the city walls. Anyone with any sense could see which way the dice had fallen. Fighting against a people like the Sorh was suicide.
Sitting on the ground, thankfully up wind from the stink the men had left behind, I had a great deal of time to contemplate what would happen when they returned. I also had time to eye my guards and take their measure. It was easy to tell what they thought of me. They licked their chops and looked at me as if I was a juicy ham bone just out of reach.
First problem: the dogs. There's two things I've learned from city dogs. Stray dogs only want to belong to someone and mean dogs are only mean because someone's been kicking them. I had to convince these mean Sorh dogs that I wasn't food, I was friend, and that I wasn't going to kick them. That would take time, time I might not have, but I felt that I should plan as if my stay there was going to be indefinite.
Second problem: escaping. Since that figured heavily into my success with solving problem one, there wasn't much point in working out the fine details yet. I decided on 'run like hell' and left it at that.
Problem three: getting food and water for myself. Looking around, I could see the rather fat figures of the Sorh women as they attended to their duties. I winced. Any woman, no matter how beautiful, isn't going to be flattered in layers of furs, grease, and tangled hair. The fashion of the Sorh seemed to rely heavily on dried body and animal parts as well, and a liking for face tattoos. I wasn't inclined towards women in the best circumstances, but for my hunger's sake, I decided to turn on the charm.
"My God!" I exclaimed as a Sorh woman ambled by with a bowl of cut up meat for roasting. I let my eyes go wide and pretended my salivating expression was for her instead of the meat.
The trick is, not to over do it. Let them become incredulous and then aware that, yes, you are admiring them. The woman stared back at me, looked me up and down in astonishment, and then slowly, very slowly, understood that I was admiring her. She scurried away. Well, this kind of thing takes time.
Time inched along. The sun beat down on my head. I pulled off a piece of my silk shirt and tied my hair back from my face. The dogs were both stretched out on their sides, panting and as miserable as I was. "Hey, Puppy!" I called to one. "Aren't you a good boy..." It rolled an eye at me as if it thought that I was mad. I gave a friendly, low whistle. It growled suspiciously.
"You'll fall to my sparkling personality soon enough," I told it and then eyed the other. It was giving me that 'ham bone out of reach' look even more intensely.
It was in my language, so I figured the Sorh was talking to me, not the dogs. I turned to see my lovely Sorh lady back and empty handed.
"I Tay's woman!" It was said fiercely, a challenge.
"Lucky man!" I called back.
Her challenging demeanor became speculative. She'd stated her position, but I made sure my look was saying that I wished I had some of what Tay was getting. I'm sure she'd expected fear. I was afraid. Staked between two killer dogs, awaiting Tay's decision on my life, and flirting with his woman, wasn't helping my odds t live to a ripe old age. Sometimes, though, you have to take the chance if you want the big payoff.
Problem one and a half: How to get Tay's woman to fall for me, help me out, and befriend the dogs? It would help problem two immensely if I had help in my escape.
"Slut!" a male voice sneered. It followed this with some words in Sorh. The woman looked frightened and then scurried away.
This new person walked among the dogs unafraid. I watched in awe as he patted heads and fed them choice bits of meat. They fawned at his feet, wiggling like puppies and wagging tails. He wasn't Sorh. He was taller than I was, of course, most people were, blonde in a goldish red sort of way, and well built from what I could see. Dressed in a tight leather tunic and cloth shorts, much wasn't left to the imagination. He wasn't Sorh, that was obvious, but he wasn't from my adopted city either. He turned blue eyes on me and gave me a very thorough once over that was both speculative and interested. That he liked men was as clear as the sky and I wasn't sure what to say to it since I was the object of that interest.
"Pretty," the man said as he scratched behind dog ears. "What a waste."
Okay, women were pretty. I was angry in under a second and bristling as if I had the ability to do something about the insult. "Who are you?"
He raised a gold eyebrow. "You're willing to seduce a Sorh woman, but not give the good side of your tongue to me?"
That made me even angrier and I've never been that smart when I'm angry. "You aren't Sorh. Are you a slave?"
The man didn't seem ruffled by the insult. "No, actually. I'm the leader of the Sorh. This is my tent."
I blinked, dumbfounded. "I..."
"Don't understand, I know," he replied with a chuckle. "Tay is their Chieftain, but I'm the one who gives them their victories. They were unorganized tribes, ineffectual against their enemies until I took them up and showed them battle tactics."
I was shocked. "Why would you do that?"
"Because I get to keep whatever they leave behind," the man replied as he touched a large, gold bracelet on his arm. "The Sorh don't have any use for wealth or land. They're nomads who only want to fight." He smiled at me. "I'm surprised that Tay kept you alive, though. I was very much hoping for a Prince, not a living totem."
"Totem?" I was getting very tired of my complete ignorance and my temper was growing with each question I had to ask this man, until my brain engaged at last and tapped me on the shoulder, wondering why I was pissing off the one man who could save me.
"The Sorh are very superstitious," the man replied. "Before they would trust me, I had to go to their wise woman. She told me our fortunes were tied together and that success, in my life especially, relied on the circles of gold and blue. Nonsense, really. I went along with it, of course, and even made a banner for it," the man chuckled. "I can see why Tay was so taken with your eyes. He uses that superstition like a club over the heads of his people."
I had to try, though I knew the answer already. 'Leave no stone unturned', the bar maid at Gilley's used to say, though I think she was talking about looking for tips under the plates and mugs on the bar tables. "You don't need me, especially if I turn out to be unlucky for Tay," I reasoned. "You can tell them the dogs had me for a snack and just let me get away-"
"Ah, but you can be useful in so many ways," the man purred. Ever see a man purr? He had that glint in his eye, as well, and it spelled trouble for me. Yes, he was damned handsome, and yes, if I had been tossing a few back at Gilley's and he had come up and made me an offer, I don't think I would have turned him down, but this was an enemy camp, I was facing death on all sides, and this man had all the power to do as he pleased. Things could get very ugly for me.
"I think I'll stick to trying to charm the dogs," I told him and curled my lip as if he were Sorh dung. Maybe I was lucky, or just very good at making people angry, but he was cold as ice in the next moment and calling out to several walking wounded.
"Stake him out on the sun rock," the man snarled. "Teach him manners."
The men were appreciative of the punishment. I didn't know what sun rock was, but if it was considered a punishment, it couldn't be a good place. I was ready to endure, though, because I was being released from between the dogs. It was a good thing, though the 'good' part was hard to see just then as they dragged me along.
'Grunt' and 'Growl' were already angry at being left out of the bloodbath, but their superstition kept them from taking it out on me, at least personally. When we came to a patch of white, crystalline sand, their mood seemed to improve, though, and they took some relish in staking me out on top of it, spread eagled and face down.
It was very hot. They were wounded. It didn't take long for boredom to set in and discomfort. Growl growled something at Grunt and Grunt grunted back. They walked away to get a drink and to find some shade. I was left to bake.
If something can fit around your wrist, it can come off. Fact of nature. Leaving skin and flesh behind, trying to follow nature, was a real possibility, though. It was also a fact of nature, that wet rope relaxes, even if it's just a little bit. As the heat reflected on the sand and became a blast furnace, I sweated and the rope soaked. I twisted, I pulled, and, yes, I did leave some flesh behind, as I finally worked a hand free. Bloody and panting with effort, I freed the rest of my limbs and then cautiously began scrambling off of the sand. I came face to face with Tay's woman. I suppose Grunt and Growl had decided watching me was woman's work.
I froze like a scared rabbit. She looked angry and calculating. She tossed
a pissy look over her shoulder, towards the leader of the Sorh, and then she
Never mess with a woman, you'll get payback in spades sooner or later. The leader of the Sorh was now getting his brand of payback. Tay's woman was letting me escape. I grabbed her and gave her a kiss. Her eyes flew wide and she blushed under her grease. It tasted foul and she stunk worse, but I owed her. While she was still recovering, I ran for the forest. As I passed the first trees, I made a rude gesture back at the Sorh camp.
I'm a city boy. You can guess what happened next. If you're cozy and safe outside of a forest, it's easy to believe that only an idiot can get lost. Just head in one direction, right? But what do you do when trees and rocks are in your way? You go around them... and keep going around them... and then find yourself hopelessly lost.
In the city, I went to the market stalls for fresh roots, and meat when I could manage it, and I went to the pub for a drink. I didn't have a clue where any of it originated from or how the sellers managed to go about getting it. Water, if you can believe it, isn't just lying everywhere in handy ponds, lakes, or streams. Where the plants were getting it was unknown to me, but by the end of the day, I would have torched a few to make them tell me if they could talk.
When darkness started falling, I heard the dogs. Can a person be proud that they managed to get so lost that it took dogs that long to sniff him out? I'm sure they had backtracked all the way to the border before they realized that I wasn't going anywhere near it.
Having bet on a few dog fights, I had a keen appreciation of what they could do with those teeth. I also had a feeling that my non Sorh 'master' wasn't going to be very pleased that he had to hunt me down. Avoiding him and the dogs was a priority.... but it wasn't one for long. It seemed that the Sorh had their own enemy.
I was running full tilt, well, as full tilt as a forest would allow, and didn't see my danger until a cape was thrown over me and I was tackled to the ground. I was dragged, blind and suffocating, over rocks and tree roots. I smelled male bodies all around me and heard muttered words through the material of the cape.
The sudden snarl of the dogs made me shiver. They hadn't been as far away as I would have liked. They were silenced with wails and pained yips and then the sound changed from dog to man as battle was joined.
You see things even in a well policed city. Men have fights. Blades are drawn. There's no two ways about it. Cutting a man with a blade is the same as a butcher hacking meat and it sounds like it, too, only a man screams and blubbers, and a haunch of meat doesn't. I was ready to throw up food I didn't have in my stomach and crawl off to hide, the memory of my escort's murder all too willing to supply me with the mental visuals to go with the sounds.
There was an end to it, but it wasn't tidy. Men didn't always die right away and it was up to the victors to decide whether to be merciful or not. The men who had me decided not to be and those ragged cries of pain were cut off abruptly.
The cape was pulled off and a foot on my chest made sure that I stayed flat on my back. Faces ringed me, dark faces, adorned with silk cloths and gold jewelry. I grinned. "Your Tamil traders! You must be going to the city. I live there. Those bastards took me prisoner. They were going to kill me!"
Bloody swords leveled at my adam's apple. I stopped talking and just gawped at them. They talked to one another in their own tongue and then a decision was made. The cape was thrown back over me and then tied.
Have I mentioned that Tamil traders are slavers? I had visions of being taken to my own city and sold as a slave there. I even imagined myself sold to the palace to fill the position of an errant floor washer. Knowing my mother, she would probably think that I had only gotten what I deserved..
Being close to the Sorh didn't sit well with my new captors. We traveled far into the night and then joined more men. I was braced for another fight, but nothing happened. Instead, the cloak was ripped off of me and I was tossed into a barred cage and locked in with several other occupants. One was a child and the other two were women. They looked very despondent and gave me pitying looks as I crouched and looked through the bars, trying to see where I had ended up.
We were almost out of the forest and entering into rolling hills. The caravan was large and there were many carts full of slaves of differing races. I noticed quickly enough, in the flicker of torchlight, that non of them were Sorh. It was well known how much the Tamil hated them.
"I suppose they'll want us to breed with you," one of the females said as she gave me an appraising look, a look that usually came from a city whore. "I've heard that's how they increase their slave pens."
"You wish," I growled back and hunkered away from her. "Where are we going?"
"Fraeland," the other woman replied and sounded on the verge of tears. "They bought me from my father. Poll, here, was bought as well, for a few pennies. My father didn't have the dowry for me and Poll's family was starving."
I felt sick, but I wasn't unaware what cold bastards men could be.
"I was born a slave," the other woman said. "They buy and sell me all the time. At least the Tamil are handsomer than my last masters."
"I'm not a slave," I growled. "I'm getting the hell out of here first chance I get."
"They won't give you that chance," the slave woman snickered.
The caravan began moving again and the swaying of the cart made me feel ill. I was hungry, dying of thirst, and my skin felt as if I had been slow baked to well done on the sun sand, but my thoughts were all on that one word; Fraeland. It was in the colder reaches of the world, a land inhabited by blonde giants who, like the Sorh, lived only to fight. It was not a place for a short, warm blooded Piccan like me; a city reared bar fly without a notion how to survive outside of stone walls.
Use your wits, I told myself. It's the only weapon you have.
"I wouldn't want to breed with you anyway," the one woman huffed.
"Who wants pink skinned children?"
I was used to spending part of my day cleaning floors and being treated as slightly less important than a lord's hunting dog. For the rest of that day, though, I had been one of the city folk, perhaps even slightly better than they were, because, though I had been cleaning floors, working in the palace had given me a bit of status. Maybe my mother hadn't respected me, and I had, more often than not, spent my time making bar tabs and chasing bed partners, but I had been someone. Now I was a dumb animal locked in a cage. A keeper came by and used buckets of water to clean out our cage. He tossed food at us through the bars and he filled a very small bucket of water and slid it through a small opening. He didn't acknowledge us, or responded in any way to my shouted insults and demands for freedom. My companions were tearful and then silent, huddled away from me and probably resigning themselves to their fate.
"Why don't you be quiet?" the slave woman demanded irritably after some time. "You will only be punished."
I finally looked more closely at my companions, crouching in my corner, hands locked on the bars to keep the swaying of the cage from tossing me around. The slave woman was large breasted and not so young. She had dark, mussy hair and flat brown eyes. The other woman was willowy and blonde. She wasn't pretty and, not wanting to be cruel, I had to think that her father's lack of dowry had not been his only problem. That didn't excuse selling his daughter into slavery, but I could see his dilemma. The boy looked scared and he huddled in the woman's arms. I determined, in that moment, that they were escaping along with me. As for the slave woman, I didn't have any doubt that she could take care of herself.
"What are your names?" I asked them.
"Themis," the slave woman responded with a sniff.
"Amala," the blonde replied in a small voice.
"Poll," the boy whispered.
"Lock," I told them and then more firmly and with all the conviction I could muster, "We are going to escape."
Themis laughed outright and decided that the passing scenery was much more interesting than I was. Amala looked confused. I didn't blame her for not believing me. I wasn't certain how I was going to get out of a locked cage, but pessimism was never my problem. The boy looked hopeful and that made me even more determined to succeed. In my short life, I've never been responsible for anyone but myself. I could feel the weight of it settle on my shoulders. I'm not sure that I liked, but I couldn't see myself running and leaving that frightened boy behind or that sad eyed blonde who'd been that rejected by her family.
It's easy to escape disaster by yourself. With three of us, I had to plan more carefully. Running flat out wasn't going to work. The boy and the women would tire quickly and we would be caught. I didn't bother with plans to beg for rescue from any passing caravan or knight. I had more confidence in myself than I did in the goodness of men's hearts. Instead, I had to rely on the stupidity and arrogance of our 'owners'.
The other slaves around us seemed resigned to their lot. They were quiet, even when the cages were close to each other. I was disgusted by it, but I realized that their acceptance would help me. The robed men moving around us weren't expecting an uprising. They were relaxed in their percieved power over us. Why shouldn't they be? We were behind bars and kept from escape by locks, yet a lock wasn't foolproof, and I knew that better than most.
There had been a few weak moments, where the draw of easy money had been too hard to resist, especially when one of my friends had shown a certain talent for picking locks. A few coins had passed my palm for helping him, but my taste for the 'easy' life had paled when he had been caught and sentenced to the mines. I still remembered my lessons, though, and I didn't think the lock on my cage was beyond my skill. That left only when.
My chance came when they had some sort of celebration to do with the full moon. They checked their locks, made a large fire, and spent the evening chanting and drinking. I bided my time. The slave woman scowled as she watched me examine the lock and then pry a sliver of wood from the floorboards of our cage.
"Well, I'm not going," she whispered. "You're mad. They'll catch you and punish you."
I didn't argue. I wasn't about to take someone who was reluctant, especially when speed and then laying low was our only chance. I eyed my other companions. "What about you two?"
"I don't want to be a slave," Amala replied firmly. "I will take my chances with you."
"I'm going," the boy whispered, but he still looked terrified.
I retied my bandana to keep my unruly black hair out of my eyes. "You must be quiet and you must do exactly as I say."
They nodded and Themis looked disgusted. "You'll be killed in a very bad way," she warned acidly.
"Not if I can help it," I growled back.
The slavers drank themselves into sleep. A few wandered, trying to do their duty and keep guard, but I could see that they weren't very alert. I picked the lock and explained to my two companions, "We will keep to the shadows. Once we get into the forest, we need to find a low place and cover ourselves with bushes, leaves, anything that we can find. Once they are done searching for us, then we move west. There's a small village, Bechan. I know a man there, Kohla Revan. He'll help us get back home.
The woman looked sad. "But, I don't have a home."
"Me either," the boy said and choked on a sob.
"Uh, well..." I floundered and then found my mental feet again. "There's a temple in my city. They'll take you in. It's part of their religion." I'd always laughed at them, watching them running around in their purple robes, handing out baskets of food and taking in every stray in town, whether they were needy, lazy, or someone taking advantage of them. I wasn't laughing now that my companions were the ones in need.
They both looked hopeful. Themis lifted a lip. "Probably ask you to spread your legs for it too."
"Shut up!" I shouted, not wanting the child to hear such filth. "If you want to stay, stay," I said in a softer voice.
I turned to pick the lock. It was even simpler than I imagined. There was a reason for that. An alarm was the last thing I expected. I'd been hearing an odd jingle under the bed of the cage, but I had told myself that it was just metal supports and the yolk that went to the beasts. I discovered that it was a box of bells wrapped in cloth and anchored by the door. Once I swung the door outward, it pulled the cloth and sent the bells falling loudly to the ground.
"Run!" I shouted at them. "Don't wait for me and do exactly as I told you!"
"But...?" Amala began to protest fearfully, but I appealed to her instincts.
"Save the boy!" I shouted.
"I didn't have anything to do with this!" Themis was shouting at the slavers who were staggering to their feet as they realized what was going on.
Amala grabbed the boy and ran. I jumped out and made certain that the slavers saw me in the flickering firelight. I made a dash for it in the opposite direction, but that was away from the forest. I cursed my luck as I stumbled over hard, rocky ground and was forced to try and find my way down a narrow track between hills.
I was ridden down with ease, spread eagled, and whipped. I didn't bite my lip and suffer bravely. I screamed and thrashed and didn't take any of it well. My only luck then was that they didn't want to permanently mark me. They dragged me back to my cage and Themis seemed far too pleased to see my return. They shackled my hands and wrists together, as if I were a lamb ready for slaughter, and I could only lay there and pant and curse, knowing that they probably wouldn't give me another chance to escape again..
Days of misery passed. I didn't want to think. I didn't want to imagine my future. I was unshackled after the second day of my attempted escape, but I felt that I might as well have been left in them. I huddled in a corner and felt one with the dumb beasts pulling my cage.
When we entered a town, we were herded into a pen. I shouldn't have been surprised. Of course we would be sold here. My captors would not be making the entire journey into the north.
A slave pen, anyone will tell you, is a horrifying place, especially if the merchants charge extra for certain alterations, brands, or slave accessories. A door led into a smithy near our pen. I could smell wood smoke and something less pleasant... blood maybe, or cooked meat... something I'd only smelled behind a butcher shop. It made the short hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I wasn't the only 'slave' to stand staring at that open doorway, wondering what our fate might be.
People began to walk by and look us over. I was thanking all the Gods for being short and dark, when the big blondes and the women were chosen first. One of the blondes went into the shed and two of the women. When their screams shattered the steady background noise of the busy city, I cringed and bit my lip on a whimper.
Was I pretty enough for someone's bed boy? Was I strong enough to do labor or to be a house slave? I wasn't big enough or strong enough to guard someone's female household. I just might keep my balls because of that... unless someone thought that I was young and pretty and wanted me to stay that way. I shuddered and tried to hide behind the 'leftovers' in the pen.
"He was specific," a deep voice grunted. "Small. Stupid. No trouble. Quiet."
"I can have a slave's tongue removed," the merchant suggested, but sounded more bothered than helpful. I doubt the customer was willing to pay much or he would have been giving a better sale's pitch. "Castration makes them calm."
The customer swore something in another language and then said, "A man stays a whole man until he dies, whether he is a free man or a slave."
"Of course," the merchant replied. "Forgive me."
They came around the corner of the pen and I saw a very tall man. He wasn't broad and muscled tall, he was tall and thin, with broad shoulders balanced on top. His face was square jawed and he had waist long hair that was iron gray and tied in braids. Dressed in cloth and leathers, he wore an axe at his belt and a long knife. Barbaric, golden jewelry hung from every point imaginable.
The man looked over the pen of slaves, rubbing his chin and scowling, gray brows drawn down sharply over blue eyes. The merchant, covered from head to toe in his robes, stood at his elbow and managed to look bored even under his concealment.
I had a choice. Go with big and savage, or stay and get someone worse. It really didn't take much consideration. I can play dumb pretty well. In fact, my mother often commented on that ability to anyone who would listen. It was easy to move away from the others and stare at the big man with wide, innocent eyes.
"That one." the man pointed a thick, calloused finger at me. "Is that a man or a dwarf?"
"A man," the merchant sniffed and I could imagine him rolling his eyes at the other man's superstition. "He is Pican, I believe, or at least a mongrel." A man who knew his merchandise. I could have respected that, if I hadn't hated him so much.
The customer suddenly snarled at me and made as if to take out his axe. I fell on my ass and shook all over, whimpering pathetically. I was acting, of course... Well, maybe it wasn't all an act. The man was huge... and savage.
The customer looked disgusted. "That one. I've seen sheep with more spirit."
The merchant, sensing a sale, attempted to get the man to pay for 'extras'. "We apply brands very cheaply, sir. We can also permanently put on collars or affix certain piercings in delicate areas to make control easier."
"Non of that," the man growled. He tossed the merchant a few coins, few enough to make me feel insulted. "Get him out of there."
The pen was opened and I meekly came out under my own power.
"Thank you for your patronage, sir," the merchant said smoothly and then moved to a more promising customer.
"I know you're acting, little Pican mutt," the big man said to me as he pulled out a metal wrist band attached to a length of chain. "Fortunately for you, you are the only slave I've seen fitting the description my Chief gave to me. I imagine that you are worse than any bad tempered beast, or afflicted with some madness, or the man wouldn't have sold you off so cheaply."
The wrist band had spikes along the inside. Trying to pull my hand out would have been suicide. Resisting it in any way would have been suicide as well. When he leaned to look in my face, I realized that he wanted my answer to his accusations. I gave him a stupid, wide eyed stare and continued to play dumb. I knew a bluff when I saw one.
The man frowned and there was just the barest hint of doubt, but then he was pulling on my 'leash' and taking me through the crowds.
"Found one?" There was an entire group of tall men gathered near a fountain. They were dressed like my new 'master'. Their hair was blonde, for the most part, except for one sour face man with a drooping mustache. His hair was fiery red. He's the one who was asking the question.
"The only one," my master told him.
Red Hair glared at me and gave me a push with one hand. "He's like a ferret, lean and small. I think he has teeth like one as well."
Why weren't they buying my stupid and harmless act? I refused to drop it. I let Red Hair poke and prod me and refused to look anything other than sad or frightened.
"I'll pull his teeth before we reach the camp," my master told him. "Our Chief will get what he wants."
What did he want and why did he want it? Two big questions that I needed answers to if, by some chance, I couldn't escape these men.
"That will make the long trip amusing at least," Red Hair chuckled. His smile made me shiver and that made my almost healed whip marks twinge. I kicked myself mentally for stupidity. Of course, that was why they suspected that I was pretending. A slaver didn't have to whip a meek slave.
First, they tried to be nice. I almost accepted that, until I saw Red Hair pull out a shirt with a bloody hole in it. He grimaced and quickly put it away again. The rest of the clothing that he handed me, let me know that they at least didn't want me to freeze to death. I was given a warm coat with a hood, gloves, woolen shirts, and leather pants. They even found a pair of hard soled boots that were only a little large. All of these things were my size and that begged a question. What had happened to the original owner?
I pulled everything on gratefully and was again surprised when they handed me chunks of meat and a wooden cup of water. I ate quickly, barely taking the time to chew. They raised eyebrows when I finished and burped, but then they nodded to each other and I knew payment was due. I was ready with the meek attitude.
"Pack our things. We ride shortly," my master ordered.
When you've lived in one place your entire life, packing doesn't come naturally, unless you count the several times that my dear mother had exclaimed that she, 'Couldn't take my evil ways any longer.', and had kicked me out. Those banishments had never lasted more than a day and 'moving out' had been as near as the closest bar stool. This was both different and difficult. Big men had big gear and bigger packs.
I tried stuffing, but Red Hair growled and stopped me with a cuff. Meek, stay meek, I warned myself, and cowered instead of sticking my fist in his eye. I tried rolling things and then folding, but they refused to stay that way, stiff leathers and awkward gear sliding and tumbling. Finally, my master had seen enough.
"He's an idiot," he declared as he pushed me aside.
"Our Chief didn't ask for brains," Red Haired grumbled. He eyed me. "Look at his hands. Soft. He's a city boy."
"They'll toughen," my master promised. Then he bent and showed me how to wrap things tightly in leather packs and tie them securely. He took it on himself to lift them to the backs of the pack horses and secured them there. Then he turned to look me over again, smoothing a hand down his beard thoughtfully.
"We can't trust him," Red Hair warned.
"No," my master agreed. "Such a little runt. Rats must be in his pedigree." He was watching my eyes. I was proud of myself when I managed to not rise to the bait. He walked up to me and then around me. I stayed still, my head bowed, my eyes on the ground. Suddenly, I felt his big hand kneading my ass intimately. His breath was in my ear, hot and scented with cloves as he said, "Maybe he was someone's bed slave? He has a very soft ass."
When his big, thick finger, pressed up into the crack of my ass, pushing my leather pants in with it, I couldn't help that surge of volcanic anger that took my senses in a rush. I whipped around, leaping up to connect my fist with his jaw, all of my weight behind it.
"Get your stinking paws off me!" I shouted.
He had a jaw like granite and he only swayed with the force a little, before he was chuckling and straightening. "There's our little ferret's bite, Heafel!" He grabbed me around the neck with one big hand and then slapped me open handed, full force.
My senses left me. I saw sparks in darkness and then I found myself sprawled on the ground. My face throbbed and my lips were pulled to one side, attesting to a large bruise. My hand, the one that I had hit granite jaw with, was throbbing in time with my bruised face and I wondered if both weren't broken.
"Your first lesson, Ferret," my master told me as he hauled me to my feet. "That was a mild one. Remember that." He said something in his own language and it was then that I realized that he and Red Hair, or Heafel, weren't of the same people. He frowned in incomprehension and my mater chuckled, "Consequences," he translated.
I was put on top of a pack horse then and I swayed dangerously, scrambling for a handhold on the packs as the beast snorted and protested the extra weight. My master kept hold of the chain attached to my wrist and it bit into flesh as he gave a small jerk, reminding me what it was capable of.
"My name is Lock," I growled, dropping all pretense and laying my claim to my humanity.
Heafel looked amused. "It's what we say it is, Ferret, or what your new master will call you," he amended.
"The master who likes short men?" I shot back, making it an insult.
"The master who is often on campaign and doesn't need a servant taking up all the room in his tent," Heafel replied without heat.
The bloody shirt suddenly made sense. "His last slave didn't have the God of luck on his side, I'm guessing."
"No," Heafel admitted. "See that you duck when your master yells, 'Duck!'. His last slave was slow. Arrows are... unforgiving."
I didn't appreciate his laugh or that his fellows joined in. They all understood my language, it seemed, but that wasn't helpful if they were only going to use it to abuse me. Keep laughing, I thought, because I intended to have the last laugh. They didn't know how hard headed and tough a Pican could be.
We rode in silence. I tried to find a comfortable spot for my ass and failed. My movements made my chain rattle over and over. That annoyed Heafel, so I began to do it on purpose just to get a rise out of him.
The slap came unexpectedly. I rocked and almost went over. For a moment, I was hanging half out of the saddle, dazed, but then a hand twisted in my jacket and pulling me back upright. My master grabbed me by the hair and gritted out, "Lesson two."
My face must have been half black and blue after that blow. I glared and said nothing.
"I wonder what Cut Throat will think of his eyes, Kheal?" Heafel wondered.
My master's name at last and the name of the master I was being taken to. Cut Throat wasn't a comforting name.
Kheal grunted as he released me and shrugged. "He's not superstitious. Eyes are eyes, no matter how odd."
"My people think they are a sign of evil," Heafel told him with a frown.
"And some think they are good luck," Kheal retorted. "I don't have time for such nonsense. The only thing I fear is a blade sharper than my own and a man skilled enough to kill me with it."
A smart man. That was going to make my escape that much harder. There was still the rest of his band, though, and Heafel, who, I thought, I was more than a match for. Play enough cards and dice and you learn to read your marks.
I couldn't understand why so many men had been sent to buy me. If Kheal wasn't a fool, and Cut Throat wasn't insane, then I couldn't see wasting so many men on such a small errand. It nagged at me, that glaring puzzle, until I dared to ask about it.
My voice was different when I spoke, distorted by my swollen face. "Why all of you?" I wondered. "You can't just be after me?"
Kheal rolled eyes at me, looking pleased. "Not so stupid after all, Ferret. You're right, we do have other errands."
He didn't elaborate, but I was worried. If these men were soldiers, and they were armed and armored to the teeth, then fighting couldn't be far off. I have an aversion to people hacking to death other people with long slabs of metal, especially when I may be forced to have a front row seat at the event.
Kheal said something to Heafel in a language they shared. The man grunted and nodded. I would have given anything to know what had put that serious expression on both their faces. I felt that I had pushed my luck with my questions so far and I wasn't ready to deal with yet another blow to the face. I turned my attention to my wrist manacle instead and tried to think of a way to foil it.
"Do you sing?" Kheal asked around the meaty bone he was chewing on.
I blinked from where I was hunkering with my own meal. With darkness closing
in a frozen barren landscape, it seemed safer to keep close to the light and even the men who had enslaved me.
"No," I replied. Yes, I had crooned a few love songs to get into several beds, but it had taken a few drinks to convince me, and a few drinks to convince them, that my singing was passable.
"Write?" Kheal persisted.
"Not well," I admitted, but that was better than most people.
Heafel snickered. I couldn't help glaring and replying angrily, "No."
"Worthless," Heafel said and tossed a bone at me. It thudded against my one arm and managed to land on a bruise.
Temper. I had way too much of it. I was throwing myself at him and tried to land a punch while he sat wide eyed at my audacity. He caught my fist in one of his own and twisted. He was a quick man, but not quick enough. I leaned back and then landed my foot in his gut.
The air went out of Heafel's lungs in a whoosh! and he was forced back by the blow. His eyes were full of murder when he clawed himself back upright once more, but Kheal was already taking hold of me and warning the man off.
In was stripped naked, whipped, and then left naked in the cold all night, certain that they meant to freeze me to death. By morning I was still alive, though I could swear that icicles were hanging off my balls. They were amused by me, of course, laughing and making rude comments about my smaller body as I was finally allowed to struggle back onto my clothes and coat.
Heafel told me, as he walked by and shoved me over, "If it weren't for our orders, I would gut you and leave you for the birds, boy."
I tried not to imagine what that would feel like, but it was impossible not to. It didn't stop my devil's tongue from retorting, "You'll need help."
Kheal surprised me by laughing. "You've got fire, boy, I'll give you that, but nothing you do or say will free you. You will be a slave to Cut Throat and you will be obedient or you will be dead."
My body was still shivering and it made any rebellion seem foolish just then. I glared at the ground instead and decided that I wanted to keep on living. I calmed myself by thinking inventive payback for all of them.
"When you get to the part where you cut off our balls and feed them to us, Let me know, boy," Kheal laughed, guessing my thoughts and clapping me hard on a shoulder, right on top of my whip marks. I saw stars and whirling red and then I was bound and in the saddle before I knew it.
I was right about other motives. After the land had turned even more barren, we rode into a small encampment of tents and shaggy ponies. I was left outside of the largest tent with the men, but it wasn't long before Kheal returned with a small figure covered from head to toe in heavy cloth. He hefted her onto a pony and then took the lead, pulling the champing beast close to his horse so that he could tie the lead to his saddle.
Another slave? I looked around, but everyone seemed to be inside the tents. I heard sounds of some small celebration, though, and a laugh or two.
The men with me looked unhappy, casting angry glances at the wrapped figure.
I didn't expect to get an answer, but my tongue always did say exactly what I was thinking.
"Cut Throat's new wife, Angeleza." Heafel spat aside. "He's marrying her to form an alliance with the largest clan among the nomads. You'll be serving her and him."
I heard hatred. Obviously the nomads were not well loved. Men in high positions didn't marry for love, they married when they had something to gain. The nomads must have been fierce fighters, maybe too fierce for these men with me.
I had my own hatred to nurse. It seemed that I was going to be put back into my previous employment, only the royalty had changed. I wondered if they had very many floors to scrub, but then remembered that I had been chosen because I wouldn't take up much room in a campaign tent. I doubted that Angeleza would be following my new master to his wars.
She said nothing for hours, simply bore with the animosity towards her with a lifted chin, I supposed, and squared shoulders. She seemed ramrod straight in the saddle and very brave for someone so tiny. I felt a kinship with her instantly and an intense curiosity to discover what she looked like. When we dismounted for the midday rest, I couldn't help coming close enough to speak to her.
"Are you well, Angeleza?" I asked.
The faceless cloth over her head turned my way and then I was delivered with a stinging, albeit feminine, blow to one cheek. The 'face' turned away and the men laughed at my consternation.
"She doesn't speak to slaves," Heafel snorted."To her you are beneath contempt."
"You have duties, Ferret," Kheal growled at me. "Do them."
My back was still stinging. I wasn't ready for another 'lesson' in disobedience. I said under my breath to the girl, though, "Don't kick kindness in the face. You'll find little enough of it where we're going."
She wasn't impressed. I doubt that she had chosen her new husband. That wasn't the way of the world for most women. I tried to imagine her spreading her small legs for some huge, northern, barbarian and wondered how long she would live. It made me forgive her and pity her instead. It didn't change the fact that she didn't want my help and I didn't make a habit of holding my hand out twice. I wasn't going to worry about her.
We joined with a main force two days later and that's when I met Cut Throat. I was still baggage, of course, and the star was Angeleza, well, at least for a few moments. The man came in a group of other men, handed her down from her mount, spoke several words, and then handed her to someone else. She was gone as quickly as that and then Cut Throat was giving Heafel and Kheal bear hugs and demanding to know where his new slave was.
My new master was very tall and very strong. He wore a leather shirt laced at the front and his arms were bare, despite the cold, and very well muscled. Twin dragon tattoos swirled down one arm while a snake coiled about the other. He wore dark leather pants, black boots, and golden jewelry from every possible point on his body. His hair rivaled the flash of gold, long and rippling like a golden stream down to his tail bone and braided here and there with carved rune beads. He wore a two handed broadsword and two knives at his hip. He looked every inch a king and he looked every bit the warrior.
He was handsome. I couldn't escape that fact even while I still plotted how I was going to escape him. He was square jawed and blue eyed and there was an energy that vibrated from him that made me... When he looked down and down at me, grinning and interested, I was suddenly furious at myself for feeling that treatcherous part of me below my belt respond with notice of its own. It didn't have a conscience or any sense. It didn't care about slavery or possible death. It just... I slammed a fist into Cut Throat's jaw to put a stop to it. His answering bellow of fury was as good as a bucket of cold water. He didn't look handsome any longer, red in the face and sporting a busted lip, and my punishment, staked out flat and whipped, reinforced that impression. He was ugly. They all were. I hated them. I was going to escape them. I wasn't going to compromise or allow myself to accept slavery because my master came in a pretty package.
Kheal was the one who deposited me into my master's tent. He thrust me down onto a leather stool so hard that I rocked in it and almost lost my balance. I dragged my shirt back on, shivering with the cold and the pain of my back, but my jaw was still set stubbornly and I glared with black hatred.
"You will do what you are told or you'll get more than a whipping next time," Kheal threatened. "There are many slaves branded in the face, and missing body parts, who tried to escape or disobeyed their orders. It doesn't take a whole body to keep a tent, Ferret, remember that."
That chilled me even more, but if he thought I was going to roll over and show my belly to him, the spit in his face was his answer. The man wiped it away with the back of his hand and then backhanded me with it. I went off my stool and into a camp bed piled with furs. Dazed, I rubbed at my aching face and then huddled sullenly there.
"You are surrounded," Kheal bit out. "Cut Throat always sits at the center of his soldiers. They will know if you try and escape."
Of course they would. I didn't need a brand in the face. I was short, dark, and had the evil eye. Why even mention my new distinction as the slave who had punched a king in the face? I was still surprised that I wasn't dead and feeding camp dogs. Cut Throat had turned almost purple with rage. Either he had Godlike restraint, or small slaves were really in short supply.
"Your duties," Kheal told me, "are to keep this tent clean, your master's armor and weapons sharpened and polished, and to serve him as he commands. Start by filling this wash basin from the stream. " He pointed to a copper bowl that had only a small amount of water in it. "Cut Throat will expect to wash when he returns from reviewing his troops."
Kheal gave me a look that was both a threat and disgust and then left the tent. First, I peed into the bowl, and then I spent my time waiting for my coming punishment by destroying a carefully detailed painting of what, I assumed, was Cut Throat's mother.... or goddess... or ancestor.
You might wonder why I just didn't play along. Temper. I was tired, whipped, and freezing. That combination had taken away all of what little common sense that I possessed. I suppose I expected death, at some point, and subconsciously, I was resigned to the inevitable. Cunning and survival had become a quest to get as much revenge as possible before my expected messy end.
When Cut Throat finally came in, I was feeling my lowest. If you can believe it, my spirits rose when he managed to get some of the pee on his face before he realized what I had done. Dragging a cloth over his face, and turning to me with murderous eyes, he then couldn't help but see the shredded picture of 'Whoever She Was' beside me.
The man roared and shook me with big hands that managed to get flesh along with my clothing. He punched me, I kicked. He tossed me away from him and drew his sword, and I cursed him down to his eighth generation ancestor, who, I surmised in a very loud voice, must have been a bitch in heat who had mated with an ox. He dived at me and we went down in a thrashing mele that I , being much smaller, got the worst of. We ended up with our fists in each other's clothing, glaring into each other's eyes, and panting wearily. Somehow, the sword had been forgotten and dropped.
"Kheal!" Cut Throat shouted and, when the man appeared, "Take him out, strip him, and make him dog bait."
That didn't sound good, but I managed to spit into his face before Kheal dragged me off and away. I was surprised when Kheal laughed. Looking up at him, his hand fisted in my shirt, I saw his honest amusement. "You are the damnest!" he exclaimed and then said nothing more as he stripped me, tied me to a post in the cold and dark, and then tied dogs all around me.
Dog bait. That's exactly what I was. I spent a night with the animals snarling and trying to take pieces off of me. They were just close enough to get bits of skin, no matter how I twisted, and I ended up a bleeding, frightened, mess by morning.
I was tied like livestock while a man dabbed some sort of stinking mess onto my wounds, and then I was freed and tossed back into Cut throat's tent. He was leaning back in a fur covered chair, feet up on a stool, and a warm brazier giving him light as he read a scroll. He grunted at me, but didn't look. Morning light filtered through the tent, but it was still early enough to be dark inside the tent.
"Ferret," Cut Throat acknowledged at last.
"Dumb Ass," I returned and he looked at me in open astonishment. It was plain that he had expected me to be broken and eager to please. "My name is Lock."
"Go to sleep," Cut Throat told me as if he were too tired himself to deal with me, but he went back to his book, a frown settling on his face.
I knew he didn't mean on the bed. I stole a few furs from the floor and managed to find a place where the cold didn't creep under the tent. I was almost asleep, when Cut Throat said under his breath, "Damn women! This tells me nothing!" The book was tossed aside. He strode to his bed, threw himself on it, and didn't seem bothered to sleep undefended in my presence.
We both woke up near midday. He rolled onto his back, a giant of gold, leather, and armor on the bed, and I sat up, feeling stiff and miserable. A servant brought food. With a fur wrapped around me, I padded over, took it without comment, and then brought it to the bed. Men in misery and exhaustion often call a truce to hostilities. My master didn't say anything as I sat by the cot and fished out some pieces of meat and a hunk of bread. He ate his share, looking distracted.
Finally finished eating, I looked over my collection of bites. He made the mistake of saying, "There are worse punishments. Obey from now on."
The rest of the food went into his face, followed by me and my fists. I missed and landed on him hard, and we both went over as the bed collapsed under our combined weight.
"You are mad!" Cut Throat shouted at me as he finally pinned my smaller weight down and put a knee in my back. "Do you wish death?"
"No!" I snarled back.
"King Cut Throat," Kheal said nervously from the tent flap. Cut Throat glared at him. "Your new wife, she is displeased and wants your presence."
"Like hell!" Cut Throat snarled. "She denied me last night. Let her stew in her virginity!"
"Who'd want to fuck a whoreson like you?" I shouted as the breath was being crushed out of my lungs.
Cut Throat ground his knee into my back. Kheal said more diplomatically, "She holds the peace between us and her clan, my King. You must placate her... temper."
Cut Throat let me go and stood in one fluid motion. He threw back his long hair and growled, "I will go and show her where her place is. You," he ordered Kheal, "Put that little bastard to cleaning the shitholes. Perhaps a day of that will make his position in a King's tent more desirable.... and ten lashes as well!"
I sat with a bloody nose, glaring, but my resolve faltered when the object of my anger left the tent. Everything hurt and I was still exhausted. Kheal snorted and laughed. "You're still alive."
It hardly felt like it. "Why doesn't he kill me?" I wondered as I levered myself to my feet.
"I don't know," Kheal replied, honestly puzzled. "You've given him reason to gut you a dozen times over. I certainly would have. Maybe you're a challenge now and he refuses to allow you to defeat his will?"
"Crap," I muttered as he pulled me up and led me to where I was going to get whipped. It was going to be a lot harder to spit in their faces if I was going to be made to live with the punishments they were giving me.
I howled when I was whipped. Say what you want, but that hurts a hell of a lot and I was already exhausted and hurting from before. Dumped back into Cut Throat's tent afterward, I lay on my stomach, half naked, and tried just to breathe.
A breeze whipped through the ten flap and made me shiver. I didn't care. A brazier of coals smoked. Things hanging from the ten poles swayed and tinkled. A leather arm brace, studded with metal, swung and clanged against a breastplate on an armor stand. I smelled him, smelled some weird musky scent in the carpets under me, and could just make out horse from a saddle tossed into a corner. Here was my new life. Four corners of tent and my master's things. I would see battle soon and probably end up as dead as the last servant, lamented not at all, and replaced by the next small man they happened on.
Cut Throat returned, stepped over me, and sat heavily on his bunk. He tossed a sheathed sword aside with a curse and ran strong hands over his face. He muttered curses under his breath. He finally said, "She is as undesirable as a fat goat. I cannot do it."
"Your wife or your mother?" I automatically grated back, still not moving, but wincing a little and expecting instant retribution.
"Her," Cut Throat ground out, making the word heavy with hate. He muttered something in some other language and then shouted an order for someone to bring him coffee.
That made me start. I expected wine or some mountain concoction, not something fine dandies drank in better establishments in the city. I remembered not to roll over, but sat up and regarded my master. He read. He spoke my language even when he didn't need to. He drank... coffee. "So," I said, wincing at the pain and trying to find my shirt, "You're educated."
He grunted."It's done me more harm than good."
"Where?" I persisted.
I blinked. "That's..."
"Far south, yes," Cut Throat retorted impatiently. "I fled there after father killed mother in a fit of rage. It took his death to bring me back to the crown and this insufferable duty."
My mind discarded 'savage' and opted for 'idiot'. Despite an education, he still didn't strike me as someone who used much of his brain.
Cut Throat finally brought his full attention to me. His blue eyes narrowed and I was struck again by how damned handsome he was. I found my shirt and gingerly put it on over my lashed back, throttling my reaction to a pretty face... a pretty face I had bruised with my fists.
"So...," I finally said as I laced my shirt closed. "When do you intend to kill me? I don't have any intention of doing what I'm told."
Cut Throat scowled. "Not even now?"
"No, especially not now," I replied with a lot more calm than I actually felt. I wasn't a suicide, really. I just hated suspense.
Cut Throat surprised me, no shock the hell out of me, when he shrugged and said, as he stretched out on his bed and draped an arm over his eyes, "I don't have time for this. You're not a slave any longer. Be my servant and I'll give you two coppers a week. I'll still kill you if you try to run, though."
My mind jumped from, 'free man' to 'die if you run' like a confused rabbit and then I snarled, "How am I free then?"
"You're being paid and you can do with it what you like," Cut Throat snapped back and then waved an irritated hand at me. "I will deal with you after... all of this.. Is settled. Maybe I'll kill you then, but for now, I need my things taken care of."
The first thing I did was have the wrist band and chain taken off. The smith wasn't that pleased and Kheal only shook his head when he heard about it. I could see his eyes wondering at his King's sanity. Women made men lose their minds, I heard him mutter sourly. I wanted to ask him for my own tent, but his angry look at me, and the way the other warriors regarded me, made me rethink that. Maybe I didn't want to be Cut Throat's servant or room mate, but I could see that a little, ex slave was too easy a mark among men who might want to 'put me in my place' or relieve some boredom.
I returned to Cut Throat's tent and tried to put a good face on it. I was a King's servant now, not a floor washer, and not a slave. I was promised payment. Still, being forced to clean up after the man; making his bed, polishing his armor, and picking up after him, lost it's appeal very quickly. I was still a captive, me, the carefree, free roaming, city bred, ally cat. However I sliced and diced it, I couldn't come up with any feeling except for 'pissed' at my new situation. By the time Cut Throat returned, 'servant civility' wasn't on my list of things that I wanted to practice.
"Dane," I heard Kheal say to the King in an undertone at the outside tent flap. I froze to listen, a bowl I was putting away poised in one hand. Dane? "What is this foolishness?" Kheal asked with a familiarity that was telling. These two men were old friends, that tone said. "Why did you allow that mad boy to go free?"
"He has more spirit than half my warriors," Cut Throat snarled back in a very low voice, he probably didn't want me to hear. "That earns something among us."
Kheal said something, probably worry over what others might think, but Cut throat was ignoring him and coming inside the tent. I turned my back before that happened and look engrossed in picking up his boots from their scattered position on the floor.
"You are supposed to bow and greet your king," Cut Throat snarled at me. "Not show me your backside!" His boot planted itself on my ass and shoved me forward so that I went sprawling. That aggravated my still fresh whip sores, which aggravated my temper. I turned and threw the boot at his head.
It made a klopping sound as it connected. He staggered, wide eyed, and then brought a hand up to where a heel mark was now gracing his forehead. Whatever he thought I was owed, he didn't remember it just then. He barreled into me and we went down on the newly mended bed. It broke again under our weight as he lifted a huge fist and tried to smash it into my face. I shifted and it broke wood as it connected with a railing.
"You are mad!" He shouted at me and then sat back, howling, when he realized that some of the wood was sticking in his hand. He clutched at it, furious.
Sitting in a pile of wood, furs, and blankets, with a man with blood over one hand and murder in his eyes, I should have been running. Instead, I found myself, fishing some bit of cloth from beside me, holding it under his hand to stop the blood from going everywhere, and picking wood out of his flesh without a word.
I could feel him staring at me, dumbfounded and distrustful. I was confused myself. The anger was gone as quick as that and I couldn't explain it. I suddenly didn't care what happened to me. Maybe it was exhaustion finally taking it's toll? Maybe I realized that I had gone too far? Maybe I was crazy?
Kheal said from the tent flap, "My King?"
I could see Cut Throat take a breath, maybe wanting to order my death, but I didn't stop picking out wood, and, finally, he let out a long breath and said wearily, "Go away. I can handle my own servant, you fool."
Kheal made a strangled noise that might have been a laugh and left us in peace.
"I should kill you," Cut Throat said.
"I suppose," I replied neutrally, knowing, without knowing why, that he wouldn't. He respected me and my mad courage too much... and maybe that was why I was suddenly calmer and feeling more human than I had in some time. Respect and someone actually wary of me. That feeling of helplessness, of being subject to some other man's will, was gone, at least for the moment.
"I think my education causes me to hold my hand," Cut Throat admitted as if it aggrieved him mightily . "It makes me want to... make sense of your madness."
"I was taken from my home and told to be a slave," I replied as I fished out a particularly nasty bit of sharp wood. "What man wouldn't fight against that?"
"But, like most men, you don't seem to be afraid to die," Cut Throat observed. He smelled spicy and I found myself watching the glitter of candle light in his bright hair as I wrapped his hand with the bloodied cloth.
"I am," I admitted, "but I think there are worse things."
He was quiet, thinking. I finished wrapping and then sat and waited for him to decided what to do with me. What did you do with a slave who refused to be a slave? What did you do with a servant who wouldn't show respect to a king.? Death was the prescribed punishment in that day and age, but he had already declined to met that out to me. His people, or maybe only Cut Throat, respected bravery, and that, as he had said to Kheal, was worth something to him.
"You are so unusual," he finally said. "Your hair, your eyes..." he trailed off and then was rising as if embarrassed. "Still, you need punishment."
I looked up into his blue eyes, furious. He was cradling his bloody hand against his chest as he looked down at me. The mark on his forehead was going to leave a very large bruise.
"I thought I wasn't a slave any longer?!" I seethed.
Cut Throat grunted. "I'm still a king, and you are still a servant,." he replied, and then shouted, "Kheal!"
My punishment was to shovel manure in the stable line. Men eyed me along with slaves and other servants. It seemed that my continued existence was as amazing to them as it was to me. I heard a few dare to voice concern over the King's education and whether foreign lands had tainted him with foreign ideas. When you live along the baseboards of nobility, you often hear things not meant for every ear. It seemed that, though Cut Throat was feared and esteemed in battle, his odd manners outside of that were making his people very uncomfortable. He had troubles and I had unwittingly compounded them. Maybe I was brave and fierce, things they respected, but I was also nothing more than a slave, whatever Cut throat said, and a foreigner. I should have been cleanly dead by now, in their estimation, this tribal princess bedded and pregnant, and themselves and their king back to battle and glory in short order. That I was alive, the princess still a virgin, and Cut Throat distracted and sulking in his tent, made them grumble and grumble loudly.
When Kheal came to fetch me, I was more than ready to leave the cold and the stink, and more than ready to face Cut Throat again with a better attitude. Whatever perfect despair and anger had carried me up until then, and caused me to fight whatever the consequences, had purged itself. I had been antagonizing someone, the only one there, who might help me, and it was time that I started believing, once again, that I would get out of this and return home.
I kept very close to the tent after that. Cut Throat ignored me, coming and going, and probably only too glad that I had decided to do what I had been bought for. I cleaned his tent and felt bored enough to go mad, but I had to remind myself that I was only too lucky that Cut Throat's energies were on wooing, instead of warfare. Besides, it gave me time to think about an escape plan, and I needed a great deal of time to think. Being surrounded by armed warriors, and marked by my color and size, slipping out unnoticed was out of the question.
When Cut Throat returned, yet again, from his wife's tent, sullen and quiet, and sprawled in a camp chair, muddy boots littering the carpets with chunks of the stuff, I had finally had enough.
"Just what's the problem?"
He grunted and glared at me, chin on fist.
"The wife?" I hazarded as I tossed aside a helm that I had polished a hundred times already. It clanged into a corner against a pile of armor stacked there.
He looked uncomfortable. It was almost laughable, seeing such a large, barbaric man squirm.
I scratched at my wild hair in exasperation and then said simply, "You just spread her legs and think whatever you want to get it done."
The blue eyed glare he gave me looked hot enough to blister. "Is that what you do?"
It was my turn to be uncomfortable.
He turned in his chair and leaned towards me. "Sometimes," he said, "a body hates too much."
I could have asked a lot of things then, but I knew better. I was still recovering from our last fight. Instead, I said, "It will only get more embarrassing for you, the longer you let it go on."
"Is my slave so wise?" Cut Throat sneered.
I glared back now. "You freed me, remember?"
He made a lazy gesture with one hand and turned away again. "Servant, slave, what's the difference?"
Maybe here there wasn't, but back at home I could have chosen not to show up for my floor cleaning duties. I could have decided to live at the corner tavern as long as my money lasted, or I could have bought a dozen whores and... I turned away to keep from becoming furious and that intrigued him.
"We will go to war if this insult to my wife continues," Cut Throat grunted. "Sending her back to her people still a virgin won't be born by her father."
"Have someone else do it?" I suggested. "Who'll know?"
He was scowling. "She will?" he suggested sarcastically.
I have to say that I had never talked in front of my 'betters'. I scrubbed floors, tugged on my lock whenever our paths crossed, and went my merry way... well, not so merry. Arguing politics and the latest conquest was for cronies at the corner bar. Trading insults was for equals and one's mother. It was truly hard to remember that this man, looking too young in all his barbaric finery, was a leader, especially when he was prompting his 'slaves' to have conversations, and wasn't inclined to kill them for punching him in the face. I once heard someone say, that familiarity bred contemp, and I suppose this was a good example. Since my 'master' wasn't inclined to kick me back into my place, I was more than willing to rise above it.
"She's a woman," I found myself saying. "What will she say? Her only worth is in her virginity and her ability to marry because of it. If she goes back and complains of her treatment, Daddy might go to war for it, but she will probably end up gutted on his affronted sword blade to salve his pride, or... scrubbing floors and worth nothing." I grimaced as I stacked his armor and tried to find a spot on them that I hadn't yet polished. "Still, that's a long way to go when all you have to do is imagine that she's someone that you do like and stick it in her."
"She makes noises. She simpers and complains," Cut Throat told me angrily. "She insults me."
"Two virgins who hate each other," I found myself growling under my breath.
I was suddenly down, armor jamming into every point of my body and Cut Throat on top of me. "You go too far!"
I gritted my teeth. Temper, I warned myself, keep your temper. I said nothing, waiting for his punishment. Nothing came though. His weight, stretched out full length on me, his face very close to my own, he smelled like horses and I felt s if I was being crushed by one.
Suddenly, his weight was gone and he was backing away. I turned over cautiously, hurting, and saw his surprised eyes. They were such a clear blue, I noticed, and his face, when it wasn't scowling, was terribly handsome. His pale skin was flushed now, though, and he looked almost ill.
"What?" I couldn't help wondering.
He was gone, then, tent flap slapping open and closed in his wake.
"Crazy," I muttered as I picked myself up off of the floor and then heard a voice reply, "And you are not?"
The tent flap had raised again and Kheal was coming in, one hand on his sword hilt. I felt a chill.
"So, he's finally going to have it done? 'It' being my execution. I couldn't keep my voice steady.
"No," Kheal replied. "He would do such a thing himself or lose face. I came, because I wondered if he had indeed done such a thing, though, he didn't look angry."
"Still in one piece," I told him, "Bruised, though. " I winced as I touched them.
"I suppose he keeps you for your fire," he surmised, "or for the humor of such a small man."
"I don't think I've been making him laugh," I replied sourly.
"Laughter is hard come by these days," Kheal agreed. He rubbed at his chin, at an old scar there, and then shook his head, and made as if to leave."I waste time talking to a slave..."
"Servant," I corrected.
He stopped and glared at me. "You will be meat for the fire, along with my lord, if he doesn't come to his senses soon. The men are losing patience with his weakness." He snorted derisively at me and added as he left, "There are no 'servants' here, only slaves."
I let it go. I was finding out that he was right. It didn't improve my mood, especially when Cut Throat ushered in his lady wife, sometime later, and tossed her down at my feet in a glittering array of expensive and perfumed finery.
"You do it," he ordered sharply, and then turned and left us alone.
Her head scarf was gone. She looked a lot like me, dark and spitting fire. "You wouldn't dare," she said imperiously.
"You aren't a fool," I shot back. "In fact, I think you're smart enough to pretend that you've been deflowered, so that you won't end up back at your father's, am I right?" She was breathing hard and looking daggers at me. "Which do you want to be? Lady wife, or servant to someone who can manage to get a husband?"
She trembled then, her anger bringing her almost to tears. "There are no men here," she shot back and covered her face with her scarf, "only perverts who don't like women."
I blinked. "Huh?"
"I see how it is now," she continued in a self righteous tone. "He has a handsome boy and doesn't want a beautiful woman."
I snickered, I couldn't help it. "He's not interested in me either."
She went very still, maybe not believing me, or, maybe, not wanting to believe that it was herself that kept Cut Throat out of her bed.
"Why don't you try with him again?" I told her. "Only this time, shut up and let him get on with it. Let him think anything he wants, do anything he wants. You just open your legs, if you want to be his wife so badly."
"It's not supposed to be like that!" she exploded.
I snorted as I wrapped my arms around myself, wondering what it would be like when those two managed to consummate. I found myself not liking the image and had to wonder at myself.
"Things seldom are like they are supposed to be, or how we want them," I told her and felt the bite of bitterness. "Decide what you want. Rip your clothes and look well used by me, hold out for the real thing, or go back to your father."
"My father loves me!" She said in an imperious tone. "My father will not fault me and turn away from me."
"If you think so," I grumbled, heartily tired of her.
She stood, chin up. "I know so!" She lifted her scarf and spat on the carpet before lowering it again. "It is war."
I gaped as she stormed out. War? Over something so ridiculous? It came to me in the next instant that I had just plunged two nations into bloody conflict. I didn't think that would be well received. If Cut Throat had held his hand until now, because of some reason all his own, I doubted that reason would survive once he knew what I had done.
Escape seemed an act of desperation, and sure to fail, but it was all I had. I ran out of the back of the tent and then slowed, gathered my wits, and tried to look as if I had some business in the direction of the outskirts of camp.
I didn't get far. As I said before, I stood out, and people naturally looked at me as I passed. None of them thought that I had reason to be where I was; a foreigner walking freely among them, whatever Cut Throat had said about my freedom. It didn't occur to me that the wife of Cut Throat hadn't been spouting her own suspicions, until I was thrown down among a group of young men and it was thrown in my face again.
"Cut Throat's boy," one gap toothed warrior sneered. "Filthy city habits our King has picked up, it seems. Curse him and curse his father for not dragging him back at once. Now we see how weak such learning has made him."
I lifted a finger, trying to hide my shivering, "You've got that wrong, if you don't mind me saying. I'm not Cut Throat's boy, I'm his servant."
"Serving him with your ass," a man, bristling with hair, retorted.
"No," I assured him. "I polish his armor, get his meals, and clean his tent. That's all."
They weren't listening, of course, and amused themselves by shoving me about in the dirt with their boots. Filthy now, and bloody from fighting their capture of me, I looked very unappealing. What they wanted to do next, though, didn't have anything to do with desire, and everything to do with venting frustration and getting rid of a perceived flaw in their King. A supply tent was a good place for a rape, and they were very intent on getting me into it, some of them already grimly loosening their trousers.
Think I'm crazy when I'm angry? It pales by comparison to when I have something very dear to protect, namely my ass and my life. I refused to die playing fuck toy to these hulking barbarians. If I had a choice, I was much more agreeable to making them mad enough to simply slit my throat.
Gap Tooth took my boot in the balls, and Bristle Beard took the full force of my forehead into his nose, payback for both of them wanting to get in to me first.
It was a blur then. I felt blows and hands trying to subdue me by, what felt like, tearing me limb from limb, as everyone tried to grab hold of me. The tent was forgotten as they decided, in a frenzy, to take me where they could pin me. Bodies weighed me down and nails raked me as they began pulling off my pants by ripping them. Bristle beard, nose streaming blood and death in his eyes, was on top of me, his breath a stink in my face as I felt him shifting his weight to advantage.
I let the curses and the insults slide over me. I was in a tunnel in my mind, everything within me intent on getting loose and refusing to think that I might not accomplish it. My legs were pulled apart. I bit the nearest flesh near me, hard, and was punched for my trouble. I saw blood, then, from a split eyebrow.
"Seems everyone here is a pervert!" I sneered, but they didn't see it as the same thing, of course. When I felt bristle beard's cock flop out onto me, hard and ready to do damage, I added, "Is that your little finger I feel?"
Bristle Beard grinned at me through his mask of blood. "Let's see if it feels like a finger now."
He began to position himself to shove in. The sword that buried itself into his back, surprised everyone. I saw his eyes roll up and then he twitched like a pinned moth before collapsing, dead on top of me.
The people around me were suddenly gone and I was free, except for Bristle Beard's weight. I shoved him off with someone's help. I saw who it was as I sat up and my rescuer pulled his sword out of Bristle Beard's back. Cut Throat was frowning as he faced the others, bloody sword held poised.
"This is my slave," he said. "You challenge me by attacking him. Come, fight like men, not like cowardly, rutting, dogs."
Cut Throat glared at me, his nostrils flaring as he looked at my ripped clothing and bloodied face. He jerked his chin back towards camp, back towards his tent, and I didn't hesitate, at first. Limping and dizzy from my ordeal, I slipped out of the ring of warriors, but then paused and turned back when I heard the clash of steel on steel. Trying to pull my ripped clothing up enough to spare my modesty, I peered between large, armored bodies and saw Cut Throat taking on his challengers.
I shouldn't have cared, except that he had saved my ass. Why he had been on the outskirts of the camp, I couldn't guess, but he had not turned away, and wasn't turning away now, to defend... me? Himself? I supposed it was the same thing. I couldn't decipher the feeling I had, watching him quickly defeat and kill those who dared to challenge him. As I said, he wasn't a deep thinker, but Cut Throat, it seemed, could fight and fight very well.
I stayed long enough to see Cut Throat victorious, but then it sickened me to smell and see men breathing their last, hacked to pieces like slabs of meat. I went dutifully to Cut Throat's tent, and then had to wonder at my obedience. I could have tried to escape just then, and even called myself a fool for not doing so, but it was too late to change my mind. Cut Throat wasn't long in joining me.
We faced each other. He was bloodied and breathing hard, jaw clenched and eyes hard. I swallowed and tried, "Clean your armor?"
"She says that it's war," Cut Throat snarled, as if everything after that hadn't happened. "It's your doing!"
I worried my lip, looking down, and then asked, my tongue always the idiot, "So, why didn't you just let them fuck me to death? Do you have something worse in mind as punishment?"
He was on me then, standing toe to toe, and I could feel his fury beating against me like a physical thing. "You are mine. They challenged me by attacking you."
I rubbed at my bloody face. My clothes were almost to my knees on one side. I tried pulling my ripped pants up, realizing that I was almost naked. "Okay, now that you've saved face, what now? Slow grilling over an open fire? Dog bait again? Dismemberment by-"
"Shut up!" Cut Throat snarled. "You always talk, even when death is facing you."
"Nervous habit," I managed under my breath.
He turned away and tossed his bloody sword aside. It landed with a dull thud on carpets. "It wouldn't have mattered," he growled.
I blinked. "What?"
"She would have gone to her father, no matter what you did, " he clarified. "It's not her that I want. I would have had to face challenges over it as well. It is all done now. I will put about that she insulted me, that she wasn't pure, and that her father likewise insulted me by lying about her purity. We will go to war. It's what the men truly want. Warriors don't know any other way."
I was stunned, confused, and not so sure that I had gauged Cut Throat's intelligence correctly. Still, I had to ask, "Why didn't you just have at her? Why all of this?"
He looked back over his shoulder at me briefly and then turned away as if he didn't want to look at me. "Dress. Clean yourself."
"For my punishment?" I wondered.
He did look at me, then, and his eyes dipped to what I was trying to cover. I saw something there that I knew I wasn't mistaking.
"You're right," he said uncomfortably. "Still, you must pay for fleeing." I damned my mouth as he called for a guard. "Hot iron," Cut Throat told the man grimly. "Two stripes on the bottom of his feet. It will make him think again next time he feels like running. Ten lashes as well." He looked thoughtful, and then added, "No food or water for three days and stake him out where everyone can see his punishment."
I shuddered and shrank back, but there was no fighting the big guard. It wasn't any comfort to me, as I screamed at the touch of searing heat on my feet, that I now knew Cut Throat's secret. The man loved men.
Cut Throat was right, the men were more than happy to go to war, happy enough to forget that their Stallion King had not made it to stud. I recovered while Cut Throat traded insults and declarations of war with the Princess's father and I had a front row seat as I watched an entire people ready for war. Blades were sharpened, arrows were fletched, and men practiced their maneuvers. Supplies were gathered and the people who would follow the warriors to battle, whores, cooks, grooms, blacksmiths, and healers, made final preparations.
I felt the tension between Cut Throat and myself. I wanted to punch him, shout at him, and make myself as unattractive to him as possible, but that had already been tried and failed. The man watched me, even as he made his own preparations, and I saw the man begin to square his confusing desires with the small servant/slave so tantalizingly available to him. Leaning on the bar at home, and seeing him at the end of it, I can honestly say that I would have jumped him in a heartbeat. This was different, though. Letting him have his way, would have been letting him have even more power over me.
Bare to the waist and dressed in only a loose pair of leather pants as he practiced with his long sword in the tent, it was hard to keep my mind firmly on denying Cut Throat. Glittering with sweat and shimmering gold jewelry, a new dragon tattoo flew around his lower middle and arched up, clawing at one breast. Cut Throat's hair swung to and fro, his braids slapping against skin as he thrust and parried.
I couldn't help asking, from my safe perch in one corner and behind a pile of armor, "What happens to me when they kill you in battle, Dane?"
Cut Throat paused only a moment and then began swinging again. "I didn't give you leave to use my birth name."
"So, it is your name?" I persisted.
"You will use my title," Cut Throat growled and the sword was suddenly near my throat with three steps to his left and a thrust forward."If I die, my men's indiscretion would be preferable to what an enemy would do to you. Did you know that my 'fiance' wanted you castrated? She thought you would make a handsome servant to her."
My hands went to my balls reflexively. "Unlike you, I use mine," I snapped back. So much for trying to get along.
"Are your feet healed yet?" Cut Throat asked pointedly, a clear warning.
I glared. He glared back. Point made, he began practicing again. After a moment, he asked, "Are you versed in warfare, of any kind?"
"I cleaned floors for a living," I told him. "I used a mop, not a sword."
That troubled him for some reason. I tried to work it out and then said, "Am I too low born for you, even for a slave?"
He grunted."I thought you were my servant?"
"Then I'm free to go?" I shot back.
It was ridiculous sniping, going over old ground, again and again, but it was becoming familiar, like scratching an itch. He surprised me by suddenly asking, "Have you ever wanted more?"
"Doesn't everyone?" I replied, wondering why he asked.
Cut Throat nodded as he continued to practice, eyes on some imaginary enemy. "Tell me," he ordered.
"No," I shot back. "Why should I?"
He thought about that and then said, "I could teach you to fight."
I rolled eyes, but the shining blade was intriguing me despite myself. It was the thing boys pretended to wield, with dreams of knights and kings in their fantasies. I wasn't any different.
"I need someone to practice with me," Cut Throat explained. "Someone who will-"
"Act like a real enemy?" I finished for him. "Aren't you afraid that I'll gut you?" I had to ask.
He laughed outright. "No." It wasn't arrogance. He pointed to a spare blade, sheathed in leather and said, as he sheathed his own, "Take it and stand opposite me."
"Are you sure that your mother didn't drop you on your head at birth?" I had to shoot at him as I took up the blade. "You can see how mad this is?"
"You have the heart of a warrior," he said, surprisingly me again. "If you dreamed of more, maybe you can earn that from me. Prove that you are more than a slave to me, more than a floor washer."
"We have time?" I sneered. "You do have to meet an army soon."
"The victorious have all the time they need," he replied. "Raise your weapon," he ordered as he took up a stance. "Defend yourself."
I had balance and a surprising reach for someone my size. The blade seemed made for me and I had a keen eye for taking advantage. Still, Cut Throat had learned to survive in the midst of a pitched battle and an ex floor cleaner wasn't going to come anywhere near his person. My sword arm felt bruised to the bone from wrist to shoulder, by the time he was done with me.
I felt as if he had made a fool of me, putting me firmly in my place again. Did I have dreams? I was worse than the village idiot for thinking above my station. I had been deftly maneuvered, I felt, and I didn't like it. I tossed the sheathed blade aside and rubbed at my arm as I glared at him.
"You fought well," Cut Throat said and I blinked at him, confused. "You have a strong arm and good balance." He slapped under his own arm, at the tight muscles there. "These give you the ability. Despite your small size, you have strength there."
I floundered, not sure of my ground then. I wasn't reading him right. I wasn't used to a culture that gave a man a nod because of his bravery. At home, I would have been beheaded, or locked in irons for the rest of my life, for raising steel against a king, even in practice.
"What are you giving me?" I wondered loudly, almost letting out my confused anguish.
Cut throat studied me and then replied, "A man earns his place here. He earns his respect. Not even a prince is born to be King. I earned this place. I..." He paused as if confused himself. "I'm giving you a place to stand and earn what you may."
"Why?" I demanded.
Cut Throat fiddled with his sword and then replied. "My last slave bowed to the ground before me and kissed my muddy boots. He simpered, begged, and feared like a mouse. I've seen many such as that. If I had handed them a sword, they would have fallen on their faces and cried my mercy."
"My feet still hurt," I told him.
He smiled and shrugged. "I am still king and you ran from my service without leave."
Did he expect a thank you? I didn't think so. I looked him up and down suspiciously and then retreated to my perch behind the armor to think. He wiped down his muscular body with a rag. I thought about blood and cuts and cleaving a man with a blade like a bull to slaughter. My stomach tightened. Maybe I could kill out of self defense, but to actively go into battle to do the deed? That I knew wasn't in me. If Cut throat wanted to make me into that, for reasons all his own, he was going to be disappointed. Maybe he was king of his people, but I was king of the corner bar, always coming out on top in a dirty handed brawl. If I had dreams, they were about owning my own bar, not riding beside kings to certain death.
Cut Throat didn't have to know that, though. Let him practice his weird brand of promotion, but I was eager for only enough chain to get away.
The men were happy. Cut Throat was morose. I was sore from head to toe from arms practice. and the next weeks made me wish that the man had just killed me outright. It was clear only to me that I wasn't a warrior. Everyone else strangely approved of a slave learning to take up arms against their enemies. I was to die, of course, and regain my lost honor. Kheal even gave me a slap on the back in hearty good will as I passed him carrying Cut Throat's chamber pot. It spilled and I glared.
Cut Throat still seemed to think that it was his secret. With the clashing of weapons coming from his tent, I doubt that even the camp half wit, was unaware of what was happening inside. What my master thought of my skill, was only expressed in nods and grunts while he used me as his practice target. Whether I improved or simply kept myself alive one more day, wasn't discussed. It wasn't until he drove me all the way to the ground and put his sword to my throat, that I understood that our fights were more than a means to an end for him.
Sword arm wide and useless, my smaller body pinned under Cut Throat's greater one, he panted and looked down into my eyes with an expression that I couldn't mistake. The man was aroused. "Is this a new tactic I should learn?" I asked bitingly.
"I doubt a mouse like you could," he retorted, his eyes roving my face, my neck and levering up to look down what he could see of my body. As his pelvis pressed into me, I could feel a bulge. I was saved by Kheal. The man came bursting into the tent and then stopped short when he saw our compromising position.
The man's eyes went to the tent wall and he stammered, "They're testing our outer defenses, my King."
Cut Throat was up and sheathing his sword at once, all dalliance forgotten. "Send reinforcements at once, but don't deplete any other border squad. They'll be looking for that sort of weakness. I want five squads ready to move in one hour, with reinforcements ready to move at my command."
Kheal nodded and was gone. I rested on my elbows, regaining my breath still, until Cut Throat glared at me and snapped, "My armor, now!"
Time to die, I thought, and felt my stomach go sour. Even if he didn't expect me to fight, there was a very good chance that his badly prepared slave/ servant/ practice dummy wouldn't get any protection in any skirmish. I wasn't a fool to think that I would be left on some faraway hill to await his return and he confirmed it by shouting for me to gather together an assortment of weapons and shields. If he lost one in battle, a servant was expected to hand him another.
There was hope, though, in that an opportunity might present itself, during the battle, for me to escape. They couldn't fight and watch me as well, could they? That hope warmed me when I fumbled to get Cut Throat ready and he clouted me behind the ear for being too slow.
It was bitterly cold, everyone breathing smoke into the air and stamping to keep up their circulation. A few were mounted, but most were on foot, clattering and clanging with armor and weapons. I was given a pack horse and a ragged, iron legged, pony all my own. My burdens went on the pack horse and it was locked onto my own mount. That was confusing until I discovered that it was single minded in its determination to stay with the warriors. When I tested to see whether I could direct both mounts where I wished, my mount was rudely pulled back into formation with the others, by the stubborn pack horse planting it's feet in and grumbling protestation. If I ran, I would be running on foot.
Huddling in my thick coat, I went with the warriors in a grueling journey along rocky, ice covered countryside, in the chancey light of evening. Cut Throat was ahead of me, talking to his captains, the red fire of the dying sun glinting in his gold hair. He looked every inch a king and I felt like a complete fool for thinking it. He was an educated barbarian, who was the best at butchering men, and who was coming to the realization that he wanted in my pants. I pulled on the ear that he had hit earlier and the sting of pain reminded me to keep my own thoughts out of my pants and on the fact that I might be about to die.
I'm not a rider. I almost went head first into the rocks, more than once, before we reached a point where I could hear the screams of animals and men. It's blood chilling, hearing people calling for help, for mercy, for death... and the shouts of hate and challenge... and the calls of the blackbirds, gathering already to feast on the slaughter. They were drifting about and sitting, squabbling, in the trees that we passed by, kept at bay by the mass of humanity, churning up blood, mud, and body parts.
"Stay with your master," Kheal warned as he shoved his horse against mine and got it moving towards Cut Throat, "or I will kill you myself."
There was nothing to say to that. I reached Cut Throat's side and he held out a very long dagger, without hardly looking at me. I took it with shaking hands and held it awkwardly, knowing enough about that sort of weapon to make some use of it.
Cut Throat shouted orders. I wasn't looking at him, though. My terrified attention was centered on one man who was taking an awkward piss off the side of his horse, wanting that need done before the battle. It seemed such a ridiculous thing in the midst of everything else, and I almost laughed, even while I realized that it was nothing but the edge of hysteria.
"Follow me!" Cut Throat suddenly ordered to the mass behind us, and we charged forward. My horse kept to Cut Throat's rump and the pack horse seemed used to this. It didn't make any trouble as we were suddenly in the thick of battle.
There was a loud impact of weapons and bodies. I hadn't expected that, or the churning madness that joined the one already in progress. I was dazed, watching Cut Throat's sword thunk into a man and make an opening in him from neck to chest. He jerked the blade out in a gush of blood and that man toppled sideways. The blade whipped around, splattering me with blood and gore, and took out the next man, nearly decapitating him as we slowly moved forward, or our mounts did. I was making a frantic scramble out of the saddle, wanting only to run as far and as fast as I could, and Cut Throat was on his way down, taken by surprise by an armored man's flying tackle from his own saddle onto Cut Throat's. We all hit the ground at the same time.
Cut Throat's men tried to untangle themselves from their own battles to help him, but his assailant was already coming up with a sword coming down to enter Cut Throat's chest. I don't know why I did it. I only remember shouting, "Dane!" as I barreled into his attacker, throwing my light weight into the heavier man, just as he had used his body against Cut Throat's. We went down and I was fueled by adrenaline and complete terror as I wildly stabbed my blade into the vulnerable gaps of his armor.
My blade made a nasty chunking! sound each time I buried it, and the man screamed until there was enough blood to choke him and kill him. I was jerked off of him, then, as Cut Throat regained his feet and used his strength to swing me towards safety as his blade guarded us both. I was enclosed in a group of his men and pushed down to keep me out of the way. I crouched under swinging blades and shifting bodies, my arms over my head, until the battle ended.
I was shoved by a foot into the mud and gore and spat on. "Little coward!" a warrior swore at me. "Why did he order us to protect your skin?"
"He saved the king," another man replied.
Details were sketchy, but I hardly had time, or the inclination, for laughter
when I heard my moment of insanity embellished ten fold already. Men were suitably
impressed and a hand pulled on my collar to get me completely free of the muck
in an attempt at an apology. It was half hearted at best. I may have saved their
king, but the end of the battle, cowering in their protection, was at all odds
with the fantastical story of my heroics. I wondered, dimly, which one would
triumph, the coward slave, or the hero, former slave, who had saved a king?
A tent pitched on the edge of carnage, on the edge of hundreds of men dead or dying, was not in any way comforting. They tossed me inside and ringed it, facing outward and growling at anyone who questioned why they weren't out and dealing death to the enemy.
I should have been wondering at my actions, trying to understand why I had risked my life for an over grown barbarian, but I was too busy trying to recover from my shock at having slaughtered a man with a large blade, and seen far too many other men meet the same fate.
Cut Throat came in much, much later, stripping off armor and looking exhausted. He didn't demand my help, only kept silent as he discarded blood soaked clothing, and washed with rags when a man brought a bowl of heated water. After, he wrapped in a robe and collapsed wearily into a chair. His eyes found me almost at once, where I was huddled, shivering, in a pile of furs.
We stared at each other, while the world outside moaned and cried out for help, and men grimly went about their duties.
"You enjoy this?" I wondered in a very small, shaky voice.
"Not after,no," he confessed in a voice that wasn't any stronger. "Winners and losers all bleed the same."
"And it's worth it to you?" I persisted.
"It has to be done," he replied and then was suddenly on me, arms around me and bearing me back into the furs.
Cut Throat found me naked under my furs, I had only stripped and nothing more, and that seemed to break some barrier between us. His hands were hot as they ran over me and his body was warmer than mine as he slipped under the furs with me.
"I don't know what to call this," he confessed to me as he devoured my neck, "but I can't stop from wanting it... wanting you. You saved my life. You were... I was afraid for you... I should have been afraid for myself."
Stop him? I didn't want to. Hate him? I could have,easily, after seeing that kind of slaughter. Love him? Maybe that's what this was, though I couldn't explain how it had come about. Didn't the singers say that Love made men fools? I was the biggest fool, then, with my brains scattered to the four winds and all my virtue in my pants, wanting him. It didn't care for the suffering all around us, or the fact that I was spreading my legs for the worst kind of barbarian. I just wanted him, more than anything else; a kind of adrenaline rush that wanted release in the most basic of acts.
My Mother used to say, 'The world will come to an end and you'll only think of how to have one last drink or screw.' She had spoken plainly, crudely, but the truth as she had seen it. For once, I couldn't deny that she was right. The world around us was in chaos and I could only help the big man between my legs fumble for oil and plunge hard and deep inside of me, worse than some two penny whore.
A pony with a full blooded stallion, that's how I felt, impaled and ridden hard. He was naive. I was too wise, leading him, teaching him, and letting him cover me while I went on all fours and gripped the furs in my clenched fists. We must have looked a sight, and I hoped to all the gods that no one would come to see their king that night.
Afterward, he slung a leg over me, as if afraid I would leave, and pulled me against his chest. I had enough presence of mind to protest.
"Let them," he growled, almost asleep and sated.
"No," I growled back and eeled away. He glared at me in the lamplight and then sighed as he pulled the furs into the space I had left. I was sore, filled with his seed, and sure that my body and mind would regret everything in the morning.
"You've been with men before,"he said, then, as I found more furs and made a bed a few feet away.
"So what?" I snapped back. "Now you have too."
He was quiet as I turned my back to him and then he said, "It was better... I wanted you. I've never wanted women. Does that make me... wrong?"
"No," I told him quickly, "but those men out there will think so."
I didn't tell him that I thought that I was very 'wrong'. I had killed. Men were dying all around us. Lifting my ass to Cut Throat didn't seem a sane reaction to that.
"They aren't pure," Cut Throat told me. "They'll make do with who ever is at hand to purge the battle fire in their blood."
"Will they think a king needs to 'make do'?" I wondered bitterly. "I wouldn't bet on that."
"I like you better, when you're not hitting me with your fists," Cut Throat said, as if it were the same conversation. "Why fight so hard, if this is what you wanted as well?"
"Because..." I floundered and then growled, "You're my enemy."
"Out there," he replied. "They are the enemy. I keep you safe."
"As your slave," I reminded him and then pointed out, "and I kept you safe, if you'll remember."
He chuckled. "So you did."
I pulled the furs over my ears, and was glad for my exhaustion. It helped me sleep through the cries in the night and the turmoil in my own mind.
Morning found us both confused. I was still the slave/servant, but I was also the king's whore, now. He was realizing that he wasn't like other men and that could make a man do ugly things, if he had a mind to find offense in it, especially to the night's partner that he had shown his true colors to. He seemed only thoughtful, though, calling loudly for breakfast, and ignoring the fact that it was my duty to get it. That was fine with me. I wasn't eager to face the after math of the carnage in the light of day.
The smell was still strong on the air, and I could still hear some men crying in pain, but the enemy had either been treated or put out of their misery, and there were few left to voice their misery. Watching Dane sit at his ease on a camp stool, and gnaw on newly cooked sausage, turned my stomach and I couldn't bring myself to join him. I didn't think that I would be eating again until we were far from that place.
Dane looked at me over his meal, blue eyes under frowning blonde brows. Finally, he asked, "Do you find pleasure in it. When a man...?"
"You could find out," I retorted as I sat up, wincing at my sore ass.
"I could not!" Dane snarled in reply.
We scowled at each other.
"Why not?" I asked, knowing the answer, but wanting it out between us.
"I'm a king, and a man," Dane assured me. "I'll not spread my legs like a-"
My fist hit his face before he could finish the sentence. His plate of sausages went flying, landing against canvas with greasy plops, as he went over backwards with me on top and getting in a few good hits.
"My King?" the voice said from the doorway, amused, but weary.
Dane tossed me off of him, as if I were a doll, and I landed on my naked ass. Grabbing for a fur and still scowling furiously, I ignored him as he stood, anger dark on his face, to face Kheal. At least Kheal was used to our 'relationship', though I doubt he actually approved of his king allowing someone half his size to punch him.
It was time for Dane to face his generals and hear how we had fared during the battle. He also had to plan for the next one.I wondered if he was any good at that, and if his schooling in more enlightened countries had given him any edge. My life depended on his decisions. I could only hope that he was a tactical genius.
Dane tossed on his cloak and went out. The air was chill and I shivered. Kheal let Dane leave first, and then he was looking back at me. I saw a blink, and then a thought cross the man's mind. It was all there written on his face. The pale, tight lipped, expression after, told me all that I needed to know. Kheal suspected, and suspected strongly.
"Get about your duties," Kheal growled.
I knew what else he wanted to say, and didn't. Don't let anyone know. He was a loyal man, however flawed that man had turned out to be.
My knuckles hurt. I dressed and then sucked on them as I gathered up a water skin. My first duty was to clean Dane's armor. My second was to put his things in order. Both of those duties required me to leave the tent. My stomach went into a knot, and I had an entirely different reason for having my knuckles in my mouth when I finally worked up the courage to do just that;horror.
The tents were close together, with the king at the center, but the churned up mud and the smell of urine and horses, was a sickening mix with blood and corpses.The smoke of camp fires added to the hazy mist of dawn, and the men moving about them, were shadow shapes without faces. It had an otherworld feel to it and I couldn't help shivering as I found the stream, waded out until I could be sure of fresh water, and filled my skin.
I wasn't safe, not from the enemy or my own captors. My eyes kept scanning the mist and the trees, body twitching as I imagined arrows flying from cover, or men coming on me, bent for revenge, of one kind or another. I'm not sure when it occurred to me, perhaps between fearful thoughts, and the flightier images of Dane pounding into me, but a tendril of realization finally tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out how very close I was to freedom.
The men were exhausted and worried about the enemy. Dane was with his generals. No one cared about a little slave getting water. I saw my future, spreading my legs for Dane, and going into battle with him, until our luck ran out and we were both spitted on enemy swords. I saw a darker aspect, as well, found out and dragged before the judgment of the soldiers. A male whore to their king. I could see, brutally, how that would play out. Perhaps they tolerated eccentricities in their king, but never that. He would seem a gelding to them, a man who wouldn't embody the virile image they needed in a king, and who probably wouldn't ever see heirs.
There was an ache in me that I wanted to ignore. It was an idiot, that ache, the fool part of me that my mother had always said would get me killed. It liked drink, gambling, and nights spent in bars. It also liked men or women in plenty. It had never wanted just one man before, though, a particular blonde giant that wore a crown.
I clutched the water skin to my chest, hip deep in water, and stared at the opposite, darkly misted bank. Go, I told myself. It was a chance that I couldn't pass up. My feet were reluctant to move, though, and it was then, standing in my indecision, when reinforcements for our enemy came galloping from those trees and into the river.
A man yelled, "Slave!" and I was passed by, horse splattering me with cold water, as the dark shapes on them crossed the river and mounted the opposite bank. The horsemen seemed to go on forever, and then the foot soldiers passed me after that. I was terrified, and frozen in place, seeing them come out of the mist, eye me through helms, and pass on to deal out death.
A man pointed a sword at me, finally, and told someone. "Take him to the others, until we can question him."
These were men who spoke my language, not mountain barbarians. I was confused as I was lead away and placed in a group of other men. Their collars told me they were slaves too, but they glared at me and said nothing as I joined them.
I heard the clash of armies and the renewed cry of men in agony. I crouched in the dirt and felt that my life had changed. I should have spent time either rejoicing, or being very afraid, but I was thinking of Dane, instead, and I found myself hoping that he would make it out alive.
They questioned me, briefly. When it was obvious that I wasn't one of their enemy, they simply turned me out like an unwanted stray dog. I watched them leave with trepidation, as they marched onward to re-conquer lands that they considered theirs, helped by the people of Dane's ex-wife. Without food or a map, I wondered if a quick death might have been more merciful.
I was a free man again, but I knew that I would only stay that way if I used every ounce of cunning that I possessed. I didn't return to the battlefield, not wanting to find their dead bodies there, and certainly not wanting to see Dane, dead and feeding the birds.I couldn't see him going down easy, giving up, or becoming a slave himself. I doubted that a king would choose anything other than death when faced with that prospect.
The pain was sharp, the longing to try and find him alive, sharper, but the world was a cruel place and following my heart was something that I couldn't afford to do, no matter how much I wished it otherwise. If they saw me go back, these rescuers of mine might doubt my story. If Dane's men found me, they might wonder that I was alive and either kill me as their betrayer, or Dane's lover, or simply as a an object to vent their wrath on. If Dane still lived, he had defeat on his hands, and doubts on everyone's mind about his ability to be a king. Saving his current bed partner would not be upper most on his mind now. No, it was better for me to try and survive, and ignore any impulse to the contrary.
It wasn't easy getting home again, especially in a land where I looked different from everyone else. I stole furs from the campsite of a trapper, and a roughshod pony, from a string of them, at a caravans outpost. The beast looked short of many meals, and was way beyond ripe old age, but it carried me sullenly, and managed the snow laden trails. I survived by thievery and a few lucky hands of cards at an inn, and avoided bands of savages and more civilized armies, by simply looking not worth the trouble.
I did call myself a fool, and worse, as my heart continued to call me traitor to my desires. How could I feel such hollowness and depression over a man who had enslaved and used me? Was one night of having his body such a heavy weight on the scale loaded down with cruel indignities? I wasn't pure. I pursued pleasure and avoided hard work. I gambled and drank. Self sacrifice, of any kind, had always been beyond me. I had risked my life, and given my freedom, for Dane, though. I wanted to do it again. As the gates of my home opened to me, and I passed in with the crowds, I still wanted to go back and look for him.
I wasn't the man who had been carried away to stand in for a prince. I was thin and worn, burned by cold and deprivation. My sunken, two color eyes, slid past familiar faces and looked for only one thing, home. When I came close enough, I slid off my ugly pony and let him go, not caring what happened to him and the few things that I had managed to steal, or scavenge.
My mother greeted my weak knock, hands on hips and wearing a scowl that was the same as if I had only been gone a night. "Now you decide to come home, I see," she harped, shook her head, and motioned me inside, yanking off my ratty, stinking fur coat as I moved slowly to comply. "Did you run off with some whore, this time? Some minstrel with a bit of cash for you to spend? When the money and the fun's all over, who has to take care of you in the end? Me, that's who. You think I'll live forever, you good for nothing..."
She went on and on, but I had stopped listening, a lopsided smile on my face as I looked at the old floorboards, the simple hearth, and the crooked door that led to my room. Home.
"A bath is what you need..." her voice said on a high, indignant, note. "You stink like horse, and worse..."
"Later..." I managed, closed the door to my room, and simply collapsed onto the hay stuffed mattress. I smelled me on the quilt, and her washing soap, and it made tears come to my eyes. I pulled the lumpy pillow to me and hugged it. In my mind just then, I was seriously contemplating never moving from that spot again.
It didn't last, of course. As soon as I convinced myself that I was really home, and free, I cleaned myself up, dressed in my best drinking outfit, and swaggered triumphantly into my old haunts. Most people greeted me as if I had only left yesterday, but that was the way of things in the city. People were always coming and going. You befriended whoever sat a stool for more than a few minutes and forgot whoever stepped out for more than an hour. I had my cronies, of course, who wondered where I'd gotten to, with leers and knowing looks, but I never shared my bad luck story with them. At some point, clutching my pillow, I had decided that I never wanted to remember it, and that was best accomplished by not having anyone remind me of it.
It took me awhile to regain my strength, to heal from my ordeal, and to fall back into my usual routine.I avoided guards, and watched my back better. I managed a few small jobs, to keep me in drinking money, but never stepped foot in the homes of my betters again. You didn't go back to the people who had sold your life, without a thought.
There was one thing that I had yet to overcome, or forget. It didn't matter how much contempt I felt for myself, the longing to see Dane again, to know that he was still alive, was ever present. Every glint of gold hair, or unusual height, had me turning to look with a painful hope, though it was madness to expect him to survive and to come so far. I tried to forget him by whoring, by snagging every fair face I saw, man or woman, but they all seemed lacking in what I really needed. Blank faces, warm bodies, and empty feelings, I might as well have used my right hand.
I finally packed, food, clothing, and what little money I had. I was mad, worse than mad, suicidal. My mother said as much, and more, and even followed me out of the door to shout doubts about my parentage. A worthless troll, foundling, she called me, a good for nothing baby that had replaced the good, sweet, caring child that she knew she had birthed.
I gave her a wave, without looking back, and headed through the crowds towards the gate, planning on joining a caravan, and finding my way back to Dane, or what was left of Dane's body. What I intended to do after that, I wasn't sure, but I felt that I needed to know. If he was dead, I would get on with my life, maybe sadder, but more resolute to be who I had been before my slavery. If he was alive... it was hard to decide. I imagined being with him again, but I couldn't see my position, my future, in that respect. A slave again, a servant waiting to die in yet another battle, or his lover, dreading the day when someone would discover it and kill us both? There didn't seem to be any happy ending.
The crowd was bottlenecked at the gate, the guards there trying to maintain order. I was too short to see anything but backs and the wagons and horse rumps ahead of me. I avoided dung, looking down, and then ran straight into a hard chest. My muttered apology, turned into a threatening curse when a big hand locked onto my arm. I glared swiftly up, ready to intimidate some angry farmer going to market, or a merchant incensed at the presumption of running into him, and met ice blue eyes that searched my face in an expression of relief and disbelief.
"Going somewhere?" Dane asked and his accent seemed even worse after getting used to the accent of my people again.
"A journey," I managed through my shock.
"A long one?" he asked, eyeing my heavy pack.
"Through ice, snow, and mountains," I replied as people jostled and cursed us for blocking them.
"You shouldn't," Dane told me as he steered me clear of the crowd and headed back into the city with me at his side. "It's full of war, right now. Not a place for little men... or dethroned kings."
"Well," I replied as we stopped in the shadow of a shop and faced each other. "I was looking for a dethroned king. If you're one, I really don't have to make the journey, then."
There was a healing scar along his cheek, stitched and red. One of his arms was bound and in a sling. He had not gone without a fight.
"Are you sure that you want this one?" Dane asked, looking uncertain. "He doesn't know much about this place, his only skill is in killing people, and ruling barbarians, and he doesn't know anything about loving another man."
Something in my chest clenched. Jaded. Skeptical. Love was for idiots, fools, and I... I was the worst fool. "I can teach," I replied as I hooked an arm around his waist, and headed for the nearest inn. No, I wasn't about to subject him to my mother. It was past time that I had my own place, anyway, with one furnishing in it in particular, an over six foot one with gold hair. "If you can keep from killing anyone, we can work everything else out."
Dane grimaced, but then chuckled. "I think I can manage that." He looked down at me, suddenly serious. "I... couldn't stop thinking about you, even after I lost everything. I was running for my life after our defeat. They blamed me. My steps took me here and I never wished to go anywhere else.I don't understand it..."
I sighed and then smiled. "Neither do I. It shouldn't be, but it is, and we can either try it and see where it leads us, or come to our senses and walk away... in different directions."
Dane scowled. "I don't want to do that."
I grinned, feeling as if I had finally healed. "Neither do I, so let's start this madness together."