A Homecoming (3)

09/21/2015 § Leave a comment

The drizzling rain turned into a shower soon after their departure. They were on foot, each wearing a hooded cloak, on a downward path toward the town of Caedis. The young mistress had refused to ride, though he had warned her the path would be muddy. “But I feel like walking,” was all she had said, as if there was no better explanation, which was typical of her.

They were treading on slippery mud, in rain and mist, and several times the young mistress nearly fell but for his arm to grab onto. If she regretted not taking a horse, she never showed it. Instead she barked a laughter after each slip and wobble—a triumphant Ha!—like someone who only narrowly avoided a good-humoured prank. Nothing seemed remotely able to dampen her mood today. Not the weather, not the mud, and certainly not, Loren thought, a less-than-talkative slave by her side.

Indeed she hadn’t stopped talking since leaving the house, but not so much to him as at him, which required mercifully little from him in way of replies. That too was typical of her. He half-listened as she fluttered from one topic to another with a hummingbird’s alacrity, and uttered at intervals “Yes, mistress,” or “No, mistress,” whenever there seemed to be a pause.

Somewhere along a very one-sided conversation about the merits of sheep’s milk compared to goat’s, his thoughts began to wander. They often did that on mornings like this, in spring, the air damp with mist and rain. He vaguely remembered being led up this very hill, in a kind of stupor, weak and feverish from the long winter voyage. Four years ago, it had been. Rain and mist then too, and the mud-slicked path. Spring in Caedis.

It was all a blur, that winter, that journey. A hundred days of despair and loathing lapsed into a single blind forever. There were roughly twenty slaves on the slavers’ boat, packed into a dank hull and let out only in pairs at a time for feeding and exercise. Men and women alike were raped and beaten regularly, but seldom to lasting harm; the slavers knew their work. They knew how to keep their merchandise in check.

There were nine of them. Savage, brutal men with long, braided beards. They were not Ilmaren, Loren learned later; they came from a place much further up the great river, and sailed it all year long trading slaves for Ilmaren coin.

At first Loren tried escaping. He tried fighting back. Then, when it became clear that he could do neither, he tried to take his own life. But even that, as it happened, was denied him. This latest act of rebellion, which came after so many instances of the usual punishment, brought forth a measure of inventiveness from the slave-merchants. They stripped him naked and tied him to the bowspirit. Behold our figurehead, they joked. The Spirit of Rebellion!

There, hanging above the dark-green waters of the Rhoin, he cursed the Lords. A god had come to him in the sacred grove, in the shape of a great boar, and had touched him on the cheek with its carved tusk. And an entire world had been taken away with that touch, everything he had ever known and loved and hated and hoped for—with nothing offered in return but a life in bondage, in a land that could never be home.

It was that bitter, black rage that kept him alive during the journey—alive, but not whole. By the time the slavers bartered him away as a makewight in a deal at a harbourside market in Sarona, he was not the same person he had been. Something in him had broken. It was as if a fire had gone out from his soul.

It all seemed so very long ago, now. Of course he hadn’t forgotten the Uldwood—he would remember that day in the grove as long as he drew breath. But the memory of that place was so far from where—and who—he was now. His world had changed. Immutably so. And it had changed him with it. He was living in another time, another place. Another life.

“You’re not listening to me at all, are you?” The young mistress’s voice came sharp, ringing, catching him by surprise. He turned to see her standing with her hands on her waist.

He bowed his head. It seemed he had been wrong about her mood after all. “Apologies, mistress.”

“Really. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother speaking at all. Since not even a slave will deign to listen!”

“You were speaking very quickly, mistress. It is hard for this one to… keep up, when you do.”

“Oh, have done! You have been with us long enough. Papa would never have picked you as a body slave if you were a dimwit. Tell me, are you a dimwit? Isn’t Sindaros teaching you the letters?”

“Yes, mistress.”

“Well, which is it?”

“Mistress?”

“Are you admitting to being a dimwit? Or are you saying that you are learning letters?”

“The letters, mistress.”

“So you were simply not paying attention to our conversation, then, as you should have been.”

“This one begs your forgiveness, mistress.”

“Do you? Truly?”

He glanced up. Under the hood, he saw that she was smiling the same smile as she had earlier in her father’s study—sweet, with a hint of mischief about it. Something lurched in his stomach then. He closed his eyes, bowing deeper.

“You’ll have to earn it, then,” she said after a time.

“Mistress—”

“No, not with words. After all, true penitence is found only in deeds, as the clerics teach us.”

Before he could respond, the girl turned away from him and started downhill again. “Come,” she said over her shoulder. “Let us not dally. I’m getting soaked!”

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