Going away to Brisbane for a week has unsettled me. I can’t get anything done. Lots of ideas for posts but nothing comes out with any coherency (that’s assuming my previous posts are coherent, of course). Starting a new job on Monday, too.
So, for your entertainment, here is the opening to the story that demanded to be written, currently (and poorly) titled The Sale.
The cage was the same as the one she’d been in twelve years ago. Made of stout wooden poles bound at the cross points with thick strips of leather, it was uncompromising and immoveable. It was also very small, allowing her only two paces in each direction, and the seller poked her with a pointed stick each time she tried to sit down.
She was fortunate; she was caged alone, and a wide triangle of canvas protected her from the worst of the sun. Some twenty paces away was a set of cages for untrained slaves, set out with no thought for the heat, which even midmorning was causing a shimmer above the dusty ground. On her left was a man described by the seller as a scribe, though what use that was, or how it was supposed to add to his value, she had no idea. The man leaned glumly against the back bars, and few people gave him a second glance. The cage on her right was empty, the woman having been sold shortly after the market opened. Though slaves were not supposed to be sold for the purpose of providing sexual relief, the seller was good at hinting the skills without actually saying anything that would see him lashed, commenting on her wide hips and her excellent balance, as well as how her lips could speak a warm welcome.
All of that had faded from her awareness now. She gripped one of the bars, staring back at the man who had returned to read her documents for a third time.
He was averagely built, for an elf. His skin was a little lighter than walnut dye, but not much. His dark hair was unbraided, probably because it was so short, barely brushing his shoulders. A bereavement? There had been a brief fashion for short hair among the elves; she had only known about it because the son of fir Rethan had come home with his golden hair clipped to his scalp, and the resultant explosion had caused reverberations that were still shaking the foundations of the house the day she left it.
Now he was looking at her, as if trying to judge the truth of the papers he held in his hand. They were tied from one corner of the fluttering sheets to the pole furthest from her, and the string was taut between them. There was something in his grip that made her think that if she touched the string, she would feel it tremble.
She could step to the bars, call out that she would be honest and loyal, as many of the slaves did. It was unlikely anyone believed them. Loyalty was something to be demanded, in fear and in pain.
The shouts of the market, the stink of the scribe slumped a few paces away, the heat that made her cheap cotton robe cling damply to her skin, all faded as she looked back at him. He had green eyes, rare this far south. Goldeneyes was one of the less ugly ways her mother had referred to those who caged and bred her. And it was stupid to hope that green eyes meant something different. She’d learned the stupidity of hoping; it was part of the slave mantra: never make the same mistake twice.
The papers dropped from his hand, and he took a step closer. She fought the need to back away; the rear of the cage was an arm’s length distant, and there was no escape from whatever he decided.
‘Speak, then,’ he said.
She stared. Then gathering her wits, she straightened. ‘What would fir wish me to say?’
There was a price for disobedience, and she’d been fortunate to escape with her life. From now on, she would be whatever was demanded.
‘It says here that you can cook to a high standard, manage a garden, salt and preserve food, purchase wisely, stitch clothing, clean and keep in good repair all household items.’ The green eyes flicked to the fluttering paper and back to her face. ‘I can’t understand why anyone would wish to part with such a paragon.’
‘There are many reasons for selling a slave, fir.’
There was something in his face that looked like amusement, but she had no idea what he found funny.
‘Indeed. Are you not going to tell me that you are honest and loyal? It seems to be expected.’
‘I would, if I thought I would be believed.’
His eyebrows shot up, but before he could speak, she hurried on. ‘A slave will say anything in the hope of attracting a good master. If I thought you believed them,’ she flicked a finger in the direction of the overcrowded cages, ‘I might hope you would believe me. But I am not so unwise, fir.’
At that moment the seller, having just closed a sale at the further end of the rank, saw what was happening and hurried across. ‘Fir,’ he bowed so low his scarves dangled in the dust. ‘You have happened upon the best of my stock. Only newly offered, not coarsened at all—’
‘Why is she being sold?’
The hesitation was so tiny it might have gone unnoticed. Somehow she doubted it had. ‘A matter of a young son. Not yet fifty. Such are—foolish in their passions. You understand.’
‘I do.’ The green eyes were unreadable. ‘How much, then?’
He laughed. ‘She is not that young. Three and a half.’
Though she knew there was no point being insulted by anything that went on during bargaining, it was hard to close her ears to the criticisms levelled by the green-eyed man. Maybe she wasn’t in the first flush of womanhood, but there was nothing wrong with the strength of her arms and legs, her hands were quick and capable, and her face carried no scar or deformity. Though in truth fir Rethan’s son had treated her as little more than a street-cat, she was no poor bargain.
Her price was agreed at a little over four and a half thousand. She was surprised; both lower than she’d expected the seller to capitulate to, and higher than anything she’d ever imagined being worth. Two copies of her certificate of sale were produced. She turned away as green-eyes signed.
Her cage was open, and he was beckoning her out. She took a step forward, and then another. The air smelled different, cleaner. A breeze tugged at her tunic, trying to lift it; she grabbed the hem of the too-short item, tried unsuccessfully to pull it lower.
He noticed. ‘We will buy you clothes. And,’ a glance at her feet, ‘shoes. Have you been fed today?’
She knew the correct answer to that. ‘I am not hungry, fir. Only thirsty.’ No one wanted a greedy slave.
‘Hm.’ He said nothing more. She followed him out of the slave market, the cries and wails fading, replaced by the shouts of sellers of less animate wares. It was unexpectedly bewildering; the three weeks of cage life had been empty of colour and hope, and now she was walking among the fruit and vegetable stalls as if none of it had happened.
‘Here.’ He stopped, forcing her to stop the required distance behind him. ‘Are you still not hungry?’
The scent of hot meat flooded through her and she knew she’d given herself away. He seemed to be smiling, but she transferred her gaze to her feet, brown and dusty on the woven matting in front of the stall.
‘Don’t be foolish.’ A sizeable chunk of roast goat, wrapped in flatbread, was thrust into her line of vision. ‘I don’t want you fainting before we get home. Eat that, and I’ll find you something to drink.’
She’d lived for three weeks on stale bread and the occasional bowl of watery, spice-free soup. Before that, locked in a small outhouse by fir Rethan, she’d subsisted on whatever raw vegetables or rotten meat someone remembered to push through the tiny window. The goat meat was hot on her tongue, properly spiced, with onion and beetleaf and tiny pieces of preserved lemon. With an effort she stopped herself from consuming the whole thing in tearing bites. ‘Thank you, fir.’ She managed that, after the first bite. Then it was impossible to say anything, her mouth full of meat juices and flatbread.
Once she’d finished eating, he took her to a fruit stall. This time he ordered two cups of fruit juice and drank with her, the liquid seeping through the thin clay vessel, evaporating and keeping the juice cool.
Something in her began to uncurl and relax—a little. Her worst imaginings seemed not to have come true; he appeared inclined neither to curse her nor make inappropriate contact. By the time they left the market she had two pairs of shoes and three sets of tunics and trousers, as well as a bolt of fabric which would be delivered that evening, for her to sew whatever else she needed. Her new owner hadn’t spoken much beyond do you think that will fit and can you walk a distance in those, and paid for the purchases from a purse that seemed reasonably full but not ostentatious.
She was not as disappointed as she might have been when he took her back to a traveller’s lodging. He saw her to the row of tiny rooms at the back—little bigger than her cage, with space only for a pallet—and left her there. A guard on the gate watched her as she opened one of the packages and took out the tunic. Though some of those she’d known would instantly begin calculating their opportunities for escape, she took the new clothes across to a screened bathing area. Probably the guard took bribes to allow people to watch the female slaves, but there was no one within view and she took her time, scrubbing every bit of the slave-market dust from her skin. Dressed in her new tunic, she washed the old one. It would do to wear at night until she had made something to replace it.
Clean, she wandered back to her room, bolted the door and lay down on the pallet. Here she could let go of most of the anxieties of the last weeks. There were still uncertainties, but she would handle them. She would be obedient, and repeat none of the mistakes of her past, regardless of temptation.
The following day green-eyes was waiting for her at the gate shortly after dawn. She followed him to where a carriage stood at the front of the traveller lodging, a little surprised that he hadn’t called on her to pack for him, or carry his breakfast to his rooms. At his instructions she put her parcels in a wooden box at the back, then climbed in and took the seat he pointed at. He settled himself onto a wider, padded seat facing hers and a little to one side, said something to the driver and the carriage jerked forward.
It was a cool morning, though the fine wisps of cloud indicated another hot day. The roads were busy with people trying to get work done before the sun rose too high. He didn’t seem to mind her looking this way and that, trying to take it all in from her unfamiliar vantage point, and she forgot her hunger in fascination as they reached the city gate. When she’d been brought to the slave yards it had been in a locked box; stifled and trapped, there had been no room for anything except fear.
They were waved through without remark, and the city fell away behind them, unmourned. When it vanished over the horizon, green-eyes finally spoke.
‘My name is Daramon. Here,’ he retrieved a small package from under his seat, held it out, ‘you’ve had no breakfast.’
‘Thank you, fir…Daramon.’ The paper-wrapped bundle was cool. Acutely aware of his regard, she opened it, found waterfruit, an enormous piece of cinnamon cake and a salt biscuit.
‘Do you have a name?’
She froze, the waterfruit a handsbreadth from her mouth. ‘It is your right to name me, fir Daramon.’
‘But you must have had a name before.’
‘That was chosen by fir Rethan. It belongs to him.’
‘Oh.’ He frowned. ‘It has been a long time since I purchased a—slave. I had forgotten. What is your birth name?’
‘My—’ she snatched back the words before they could get her into trouble. ‘Apologies, fir.’
There was a pause, and then he said, ‘Tell me your birth name.’
It was surprisingly hard, dredging it up from her memory. ‘Coruell.’ The syllables felt stiff on her tongue.
‘Coruell. Excellent. Go on,’ he waved a hand, ‘finish your breakfast.’
She did as instructed, although the sun was high enough that it could reasonably be called lunch. The carriage rattled on through the stony landscape and she was grateful for the shadecloth as the heat rose from the rocks around them.
‘Do you have any questions?’ Daramon took the empty paper from her. When she hesitated he sighed. ‘I’m not going to beat you for asking questions. If I think there is something you shouldn’t know, I won’t answer. You are going to a new life, I’m sure you must have a lot of things you want to ask. Go ahead.’
It was easy to make a mistake, asking questions. Then again, it would be easy to make mistakes if she didn’t find out what was expected of her. ‘Do you live far away, fir Daramon?’
‘Eight days. I have a house in KelAronath.’
That was much further than she’d expected. Her grasp of geography was hazy, but the name seemed to have associations with the sea.
‘Do you have many slaves?’
‘No. You will be the only one.’
That she hadn’t expected, and she knew she’d let her surprise show.
‘Zerie, my last slave, died a half-year ago. I’ve become tired of managing alone.’ He leaned back in his seat. ‘I have a house with nine rooms, and eight kal of gardens. I frequently have one or two friends dine with me, but I don’t often have large numbers of people in the house. You will shop, cook, keep the house clean and manage the garden.’
It didn’t sound difficult. Not like cooking for fir Rameth’s demanding family.
‘I am a sculptor, with the fortune that my work is highly valued. My days are irregular; I do not expect complaints about that.’
‘I will do my best to serve exactly as you wish, fir Daramon.’
Eight long days of travel. By the end she was organising fir Daramon’s room, packing and unpacking for him. She was careful to remember his likes and dislikes, checking what was left on his tray each time she returned it to the kitchen. Though travelling in a carriage was less tiring than the alternatives, by the time they arrived in KelAronath they were both staggering with exhaustion. They skirted the edge of the town, the road climbing, until they stopped at a gate hung between two exquisitely carved columns. The driver jumped down to open it, and they wheeled through into her new home.
For the last two days the land they travelled through had been green, farms and gardens punctuating the forest. Beyond the gate she had anticipated an open space; instead, a narrow track ran through a dense mass of trees, the filtered light barely reaching the mossy ground. It was dark, mysterious, entirely unexpected.
‘Well?’ Daramon said.
‘It’s beautiful. I never thought your home would be like this. Never thought anywhere could be like—’ she clamped her mouth shut.
‘I’ve told you before, when I ask you a question, you can speak freely.’ There was an edge of irritation in his voice.
‘Sorry, fir.’ The carriage hit a large pothole; she grabbed the side of her seat with a gasp. The track was poorly maintained.
’So what did you never think?’
‘That anything could be this green. Or this cool.’
‘Are you cold?’
‘I am well, fir, thank you.
‘Coruell.’ This time there was definite warning in his tone. ‘I have asked you to speak the truth to me at all times.’
‘But I do, fir Daramon.’ The words were out before she considered the consequences. As soon as she realised what she had said, she bent her head and held her hands out together, palms up. ‘I apologise, fir.’
There was a long silence, the carriage lurching as it hit another pothole. He was good at silence, she’d learned, and she couldn’t yet work out if it was because he gave things their due consideration before speaking, or he just liked the disconcerting effect it had on people. She had to grab the side of her seat again, and when she finally managed to look at him he had returned to contemplation of the forest.
The track widened slightly, curved sharply and ended at a large wooden house with a broad verandah around the three sides that she could see. The supporting pillars were carved, but at this distance she couldn’t decipher the design. Pulling her gaze away she jumped out as the carriage slowed, and unlatched the steps, moving back as he stepped down. He had been quite irritated when she offered him her hand in support, muttering that a hundred and ninety eight was not to be considered old.
It sounded very old to her.
He staggered when he stepped down, but regained his balance before she could move. ‘I am more tired than I thought.’ He beckoned her. ‘Come. I’ll show you the house, and then I’ll go to bed.’
It was a cool house of wide, shady rooms. Hangings on the wall merged their green-blue shades with the scene beyond the windows. Soft matting hushed their footsteps. There was a kitchen, and a room full of gardening and carriage equipment. A dining room, a day room with huge windows, a library. She kept her eyes cast down until he shut the door. Two bedrooms, and a room he simply referred to as his room. It had comfortable chairs, a table, and many small clay models of figures and other things she couldn’t decipher. Lastly he stopped at an ornately carved door.
‘You do not go in here. Not ever, not for any reason.’
His whole demeanour had changed. Some emotion she couldn’t decipher, and didn’t want to.
‘Yes, fir Daramon. I promise.’
He took her back to the kitchen, and opened a small door she hadn’t noticed before. Beyond it was a small room, with a bed and a tall cupboard, and a window giving a view onto a small garden, incongruous in the wilderness.
‘This is your room.’
‘Thank you, fir Damon. It’s the best room I have ever had.’ It certainly couldn’t compete with the earth-floored stall where she had lived her first twelve years, or her nest of old rags, in the kitchen where she’d first learned her duties, or even the tiny windowless space she’d inhabited at fir Rethan’s house. Living in a room like this would make her feel… real.
He left her, retiring to one of the bedrooms without another word. She, too, would have liked to spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping; her legs were trembling with exhaustion. But she might be expected to provide him with food later on, and definitely would in the morning, and there was the carriage to be unpacked…
She took a deep breath, and set to work.