Copyright © 2004Royce Day
Author's Note: The following story was inspired by the cover art from theAugust, 2003 issue of Sabledrake Magazine created by Peta Hewitt.
"…and sold to Bidder Twenty-Three!" the auctioneer's experienced voice cut through the chaotic chatter coming from in front of the viewing platform.
His gavel slammed down with a crack onto the podium, and Tez winced at the sharp noise. His head still hurt from the blow he received to the back of his head the day before. Well, the pain would pass soon enough.
A slave handler unhooked Tez's lead from the platform's pole and led him towards the back of the auction tent, where the auction manager stood guard over his moneybox. No one bothered to either grope him or abuse him. He was sold goods, and someone else's problem now. Tez flexed his fingers, making sure that hadn't gone numb yet. The human clods had bound him at the wrists and elbows with rope tight enough to cut his circulation, never mind that the collar at his neck would make certain that any escape attempt would be foiled when the next guardsman saw him.
"How much did we get for the elf?" the manager asked Tez's handler.
"Went for 2,300," his handler replied tersely.
The manager nodded. "Could've done better. It’s a small crowd today. Too muddy."
Tez, whose bare toes were squishing in the stuff, could only silently agree. He'd been stripped of his boots, silk coat, and shirt after he'd been knocked unconscious, leaving him only his second-best trousers for modesty.
The tent flapped opened briefly, as the guard outside admitted a woman dressed in practical tunic and trousers, cut in expensive linens and decorated with silver jewelry, and matching leather gloves. There was a sword at her belt, but Tez took little notice of that. Swords were part of common dress here, even for women, except for the lowest echelons of society. Her skin was the shade of mocha, and her curly hair was a deep reddish black. What Tez at first took to be an elaborate hair decoration turned out to be a pair of functional, spiral curled horns emerging from her skull. She was a Beast-Kin then, though one that seemed to have made out better than most her kind. Most definitely better than Tez had been doing in the past day or so.
"Your payment," the woman said to the manager, holding out a small, jingling bag. He took it and set in his moneybox without bothering to count it. Tez's respect for her went up an increment. Evidentially she had a high reputation for a Beast-Kin as well.
No, the answer to the manager's deference came when Tez spotted the decorative skull on the silver armband that was clamped to her bicep over the material of her tunic. So she was a Death Worshipper, possibly even a necromancer. So Beast-Kin or no, she was not one to trifled with. That made his current situation somewhat… less than absolutely safe, Tez was forced to conclude.
"Many thanks, Milady," the manager said, bowing his head. The lady in question took hold of Tez's leash and led him out of the tent with a perfunctory tug. He followed, discarding the somewhat pleasing idea of stopping short and forcing her to trip into the mud. He might fall himself, and the ground was quite wet right now.
He was led to a two-wheeled carriage with a sleepy looking brown mare hitched to it. Somewhat to Tez's surprise there was no driver, the Beast-Kin herself taking up the carriage's reins after helping him into his seat with a light touch to his elbow. She snapped the mare into wakefulness, and guided the carriage through the muddy streets of the town and out into the countryside, where the few landed nobles in the area kept their country estates.
They rode together in silence, the woman not lowering herself to speak to a slave, and Tez not troubling himself to start fishing for information about his current situation just yet. Time enough for that later. Likely she'd be a touchy conversationalist, conscious of her status as a socially accepted Beast-Kin, and would not answer questions readily.
Despite these concerns, after an hour's travel Tez was ready to demand that she undo the ropes pinioning his arms, for they were starting to cramp up. She could hardly complain about him trying to run off, seeing as she'd kept his leash looped over her wrist the entire trip. But he put aside his silent complaints as she turned the cart off the main road, heading towards a manor house, modestly sized as such things went, surrounded by fields of cabbages and lentils. Surely she wasn't a farmer? No, there was the small house for what Tez assumed was the groundskeeper's family. Possibly a free farmer, since the place didn't have the run down look of a slave's quarters.
Anyway, at least it was a manor house with what appeared to be decent sized windows and proper ventilation, not a dark and dank wizard tower or something equally grandiose and impractical. She guided the carriage around to the back of the house, parking it inside the carriage house herself before releasing the mare from her tack and sending her into the corral with an affectionate smack on the creature's rump. Tez watched the proceedings by the hitching post, where he'd been secured with considerably less thoughtfulness than the horse had received.
The woman returned to take hold of his leash again, leading him up to the manor house. Tez's pointed ears pricked up as they approached as he felt a faint tingle on his scalp from the residue of powerful and subtle magic. They stepped up to the servants' entrance, and he felt a tickling sensation run over his feet. He looked down to see the drying mud that encrusted his toes flaking away and disappearing, as he stood upon a square flagstone bordered by carved runes.
She has a magical cleaner just to make sure no one tracks mud into her home? he thought in disbelief. A ridiculous and expensive piece of enchantment, when a scraper or a damp cloth would have sufficed.
There was a faint click as the door unlocked with just a touch of her hand, and the Beast-Kin woman led him into what was obviously the kitchen area and dining room for the house's servants. The place was spotless and practically stinking of numerous enchantments. Tez seriously doubted that a dust particle would dare to land on any surface of the place for fear of magical annihilation.
Then the woman took hold of Tez's upper arm and pulled him close, causing him to flinch as her lips brushed against his cheek, as the gloved fingers of her other hand ran along the tip of his ear right ear. "Little elf," she whispered, "how I always wanted one of your kind."
She bought me for sex, he thought, sighing inwardly. How pedestrian. "Madam," he said aloud, "rumors to the contrary, an elf's ears are no more an erogenous zone than those horns of yours likely are."
Taken aback, the woman let go of his arm and stepped back a pace, with an expression that was a mixture of surprise and amusement on her face. "Thank you for that information," she replied, stripping her gloves off and stuffing them into the belt of her tunic. "Is there anything else you'd like to bring to my attention?"
Tez shrugged as best he could, given his bonds. "My head hurts abominably, my arms are cramping up, my fingers are numb, and I haven't eaten in the past thirty-six hours. I'd also appreciate being provided with a shirt, socks, and boots, but those can wait."
"I don't believe I have anything in your size anyway," she noted, still amused. "I'll have to ask my groundskeeper, Sinod whether his son has any clothes he'd be willing to spare. In the meantime, I can at least alleviate your hunger." She opened the icebox and pulled from it a plate of sandwiches and a pitcher of cool water. Sitting down at the kitchen table, she took a bite, her eyes never leaving his. "Sit down, and I'll feed you," she said, waving at the tiled floor next to her chair.
Power games. Tez sighed again in irritation, then reached out with his bare foot and hooked the leg of one of the empty chairs, pulling it out from under the table. Then he sat down and said evenly, "I could eat faster if I'm given the use of my hands."
"You are impertinent," the Beast-Kin noted. "Why don't you reflect on this while you savor your food?" She held a sandwich up to his face.
I will wear you down, Beast-Kin, he thought to himself, allowing hunger to overcome truculence for the moment. He opened his mouth obediently and took a bite.
* * *
Next was a brief tour of the house, Tez being led once again on his leash, which the Beast-Kin lady seemed entirely too fond of. The kitchen led to the dining room, then the sitting room, then the study. Upstairs revealed the woman's bedroom, a solar, several guest bedrooms that smelled of disuse, and a bright corner room with an empty easel and smelling of paints. Notably absent during the tour was any sign of servants. If the flagstone in front of the door was any indication the whole house was probably enchanted with anti-dust spells, but surely the woman didn't cook her own dinner and mend her own clothes?
"And now your quarters," she continued, leading him down the basement steps.
Of course, he thought, mentally preparing himself for the worst. She was a death-worshipper, which didn't bode well at all. While the upstairs was remarkably free of such clichéd decorations such as skull shaped braziers, wall hangings in black and red, and the like, the basement was going to be a different story. He wondered how small his cage was going to be.
The first surprise, once they'd reached the bottom of the stairs and she'd unlocked the bottom door (all locks in the place seemed to open at just the touch of her hand), was how well lit the place was. Instead of torches or lamps there was the steady warm glow of mage lights, illuminating every corner. The floor was paved with flagstones, and from the stairwell opened into a roomy chamber that took up half the basement. The floor was partially covered in oriental rugs, and a couch sat in one corner, bounded by two end tables and facing a bookshelf filled with what looked like ordinary novels and historical works, not magical tomes. More to the point there was nothing here that resembled a pentagram, torture implements, dried blood, caged rodents, spiders, snakes, ect., or anything else that a proper Death Worshipper would favor for that matter.
"These are the old servant's quarters down here," the woman said. "They've been modified slightly, but you should find them comfortable enough." The door leading to the other half of the basement was double the normal width, and slid back rather than opening inwards. The woman pushed it open, revealing a second door, made entirely of inch thick iron bars, secured with a formidable looking lock.
Ah, finally, a cell.
She a touch opened the barred door, and it slid back on well-oiled runners. "Step inside," she ordered.
"And if I don't?" Tez asked.
Refusing to show any irritation, she answered, "Then I will push you inside, and leave your arms bound. You were complaining about them cramping before, I believe. It's a little early in our relationship to start worrying about gangrene, yes?"
"True," he admitted. The discomfort had grown steadily worse, though he was determined not to beg for relief. He stepped across the threshold, and the barred door slid shut with a definitive clank. Tez turned his back to the door, watching over his shoulder as the woman drew her shortsword and cut loose his bonds. He heard his shoulders crack as he swung his arms in a semi-circle to restore circulation. Then he checked his wrists for damage, pleased to note there were only light abrasions, nothing more serious that would require attention.
"Turn around, I want to remove your lead," she said. Being amiable to this, he obeyed without question this time. She undid the little lock holding his leash into place, though she left his polished metal collar on. Well, that wasn't a surprise, though it would have to be removed at some point unless she didn't care whether he developed an infection or not.
"Its almost evening, and I have things I must attend to," the woman said. "I'll see you in the morning." She closed the wooden door, leaving him alone. He took the opportunity to engage in a brief exploration. Aside from the cell door, the former servant's quarters had not been modified much. There were four small rooms, a water closet with a pump and tin washtub, a storage room with empty shelves, a chamber with a comfortable chair and a writing desk plus paper and writing materials, and finally his bedchamber, with both a bed and dresser. The dresser had spare bed sheets, but no spare clothing, to his irritation. Ominously, while the bed did feature a down mattress atop a separate straw tick mattress, it also sported four sturdy iron rings at the four corners.
Truly, a woman who plans for any eventuality. He set the thought aside and stripped out of his trousers. The water was going to be cold, but after the last two days that bathtub was inviting.
* * *
A good night's sleep did wonders for Tez's headache. Awakened by the sound of the sliding wooden door being opened, he slipped into his grungy trousers and went out into the hallway to see what the Beast-Kin woman wanted. He hoped it was to deliver breakfast.
"Good morning," the woman greeted. She had changed into a comfortable looking white blouse and blue skirt, belted at her wait by a sash, and wore slippers. Alas, instead of breakfast, she carried his lead in hand, along with a pair of leather cuffs connected by a short length of chain. "Come up to the door and turn around please," she requested.
"No thank you," he replied.
For the first time, a frown crossed her face. "Breakfast is upstairs, and you are down here," she explained in a tone one used with the very young, "if you don't permit me to put these on you, you don't get breakfast."
He sat cross-legged on the floor and folded his arms across his chest. "As you say," he admitted.
"That goes for supper and dinner as well," she pointed out.
"As you say."
"The human body, given unlimited water, can stay alive without food for perhaps thirty days."
"You are learned, Beast-Kin," Tez allowed. "Fortunately, I am an elf, not a human, and am capable of lasting for a longer period than that."
The frown turned to genuine anger. The whites of the Beast-Kin woman's eyes flared red as their capillaries filled with blood from her heated emotional state. "My name is Maria, slave," she said. "You may address me as 'Mistress', or not at all."
Tez favored her with a slow nod. "Not at all then," he said.
The outer door shut with a thump, and then the lock clicked home.
* * *
The next day.
"I could force you to wear these," Maria said, holding the cuffs out. The door had opened at the same time as before. All traces of anger over her threatened pride were gone from the woman.
"You could," Tez admitted. "Many Beast-Kin have strength more pronounced than that of elves." So why aren't you? he wondered to himself. For someone willing to purchase another, apparently for the pleasures of the flesh, she was being remarkably tentative about the whole thing. Of course despite the sword she carried in public she could just be cautious for herself. Strength wasn't everything in combat, and by his nature Tez would be more experienced in it than her.
Her eyes flared red again, but she swallowed back her anger with visible effort. "However long you choose to hold out, eventually your body will weaken, and you won't be able to offer any resistance at all," she pointed out, after taking a long breath. "At that time I may choose to put you in restraints much more formidable and extensive than a simple pair of cuffs, and leave them on you. Choose to be more agreeable, and you need only wear them outside your quarters."
Tez weighed the pros and cons of giving in. Yesterday had been a bit of a tactical error, given how early it was in this game, he admitted to himself. But he had still been smarting from allowing himself to be caught in his current situation, and the hackles of his pride had been raised as well. He had time, he always would have time to alter his situation when better opportunities presented themselves. Still, total submission was out of the question.
"I don't wish to have my hands restrained behind me," he finally answered. "I prefer to feed myself."
A hint of a smile crossed Maria's lips. "I prefer to feed you," she said, "and I dislike having my view of your chest obscured."
Tez shrugged. It was a perfectly serviceable chest, though he was by no means the epitome of male elven beauty. Unfortunately, by her words he guessed that he wasn't going to be given a shirt anytime soon. Domination games again. He nodded in acquiescence, turned his back to the cell door, and offered his wrists to her. She wrapped the cuffs around them, securing the straps in place with little padlocks, and then opened the cell door and attached the leash to his collar.
"Now that's not so disagreeable, is it?" she asked.
"More comfortable than iron shackles or coarse ropes, I will admit," he said.
She didn't offer an answer to this, instead tugging on his collar and leading him upstairs to the second floor solar. Where there had been several comfortable chairs two days before, now there was only one, plus a small table supporting a tray with eggs, sausages, bread, and various butters and jams. The only other furnishing was a large cushion on the floor.
"Sit," Maria ordered, gesturing to the cushion as she took the chair for herself.
He remained standing.
She sighed, tightened her grip on his leash, then yanked hard enough to pull Tez down to his knees. "Would you please stop being so difficult?" she hissed, maintaining her grip hard enough to keep his head bowed.
He didn't answer, conscious of how close he came to having his neck broken by her action. She was indeed strong, perhaps even a bit stronger than the average Beast-Kin. It would be important to keep that in mind.
"I am not a dog, to be forced to sit at his master's feet and eat table scraps," he said evenly. "If you must keep me caged and bound, if you must treat me as one would a child, at least grant me the small dignity of permitting me to sit on a proper chair at your table."
She kept her grip tight, not answering for a long moment. Finally, she said, "Call me Mistress."
"I beg your pardon?"
She let out a little play on his leash, allowing him to raise his head and meet her eye to eye. "You have not addressed me by my proper title since I bought you, slave," she said. "Call me Mistress and I will permit you to sit on a chair at my table."
"My name is Tez, not 'slave,'" he told her.
"Your name is whatever I choose to call you," she said. "If you would so kindly stop testing the limits of my patience, I may choose to call you something you find agreeable. If you do not, you might indeed find yourself eating in a chair. And licking up soup from a bowl because your thumbs are tied to your ankles."
Still too early in this game for that, he thought silently. "As you wish… Mistress," he replied.
"You may call me Mistress Maria if you like."
"Mistress Maria," he repeated dutifully.
"Thank you, Tez," she said, letting his leash play out completely. "Now you may stand, or sit on the cushion. This evening there will be a chair here for you."
"Thank you, Mistress Maria," he said.
So his was fed by hand again, standing, hunched slightly forward so Maria could feed him from where she sat. When the meal was done, she led him downstairs and set the dirty dishes on a rune-bordered section of the kitchen's tabletop. The stains and food crumbs disappeared, much in the same manner as the mud on Tez's feet had a few days before. There seemed to be no end to the useful enchantments in the place.
Then it was off to the study, where Maria pulled a stack of books at seeming random at set them at her desk. She indicated a seat for Tez to take, and then sat down herself. Then she glanced at him tentatively, as if wondering what to do with him.
A very good question, he thought. What was the Beast-Kin's intent? Sex, as he'd first thought? Then what was he doing in her study rather than her bedchamber? Hard labor? Though he wasn't weak by any means, there were other races, human and not, that had been for sale at the slave auction, for cheaper prices. Domestic chores? Doubtful. Ordinary servants were cheaper than slaves in the cities, where too many people desired too few jobs. Perhaps she's a sadist, and wishes to torture me through sheer confusion. He snorted, and then became aware that the dull throbbing pain in his neck that had been with him since Maria had yanked on his leash had suddenly become sharp and very uncomfortable.
"Something the matter?" she inquired.
"My neck hurts," he said through clenched teeth, eschewing stoicism for the moment. When she had pulled him down by his leash and metal collar, the action must have strained his neck muscles, perhaps even cracked one of his vertebrae.
"How did you— Oh, dear," she said, her hand rising to her lips in dismay. She rose up from her seat and stood behind him. "Where does it hurt exactly?"
"I'm not sure."
"Stand still then," she ordered. She grasped his skull gently in her fingertips, and began to rotate his head through a range of motion. Almost immediately he grunted in pain again. He gasped as she tried to touch his neck where it was covered by his collar, his vision suddenly becoming a red blur of agony. "I must have hurt you when I yanked you down like that," she said.
"Your uh, grasp of the uh, obvious is nothing short of miraculous." Her fingers retreated and he heard the rattling of keys. Then to his surprise, he felt her working the lock at the back of his neck, and then the hinged collar opened and was removed.
"There, that should take some of the pressure off," she noted happily. He felt her grasp his right wrist, and then suddenly the leather cuff snaked off him and his arms were allowed free movement again. He gasped again as his arms swung down, the pain of his neck rapidly spreading to his shoulders.
She led him into the kitchen. "Sit down," she ordered, and Tez took a seat in one of the chairs. Maria hung a kettle in the fireplace and muttered a phrase at it. The logs in the fireplace suddenly caught fire and began to burn. "Stay there a moment," she said, and scuttled out of the study while the water began to heat.
Tez blinked. His collar and leash were lying on the tabletop, and his wrists were unrestrained. There were plenty of knives in the kitchen, which would take care of the cuff about his left wrist in a matter of moments. From there it wouldn't take more than a few seconds to steal one of the mares from the stable. Admittedly he was half-naked, penniless, and in considerable pain, but that was little bother. Once he reached any area of relative wilderness he could hide there indefinitely until he began a plan of action to restore himself to comfortable circumstances.
Of course there still was the problem of Maria, who could either chase after him herself or send out hired mercenaries to hunt him down. But with a knife in his hands that would be a very a short lived problem indeed, if he so chose.
But then again, there was the problem of the Beast-Kin's puzzlingly inconsistent actions, kindness at one moment, relatively strong discipline the next. Not to mention being the politest Death Worshipper he'd ever encountered.
I don't believe she has any idea what she's doing, he realized. She'd never owned a slave before, he reasoned. Indeed, she had little idea what to do with him, at least until she was ready to proceed with whatever action she had purchased him for. Interesting.
The word shocked him, ever so slightly. It had been quite some time since he'd found anything interesting.
And even being enslaved could be an interesting diversion, assuming one had a sufficiently puzzling mistress.
* * *
When Maria returned, Tez was sitting in his chair quite demurely, hands folded in his lap, eyes firmly pointed away from the kitchen door that beckoned to the outside world and freedom. His owner was looking rather breathless as she entered, perhaps having belatedly remembered that she had left her somewhat expensive purchase sitting un-tethered in a room full of sharp implements and an easily accessible exit.
"Ah, there you are," she said, with rather studied nonchalance. She moved a variety of earthenware jars and glass phials from the voluminous pockets of her dress to the kitchen table. "Lets see if we have anything that can help you with your difficulty." She took the lid off of one of the jars and dipped her fingers into it, pulling out a wad of viscous green goop that smelled incongruously of lilacs. She stepped behind him and lifted the hair away form the back of Tez's neck, then began to rub the stuff along the injured muscles and vertebra of his neck. As it began to seep in, his skin prickled with surface warmth, and then a soothing glow seemed to enter his abused frame, easing the pain of his injuries. "That should encourage your injuries to heal properly," she said. Maria wiped her hands clean on a cloth and poured a bright blue liquid into the cup of palm. "And this should keep your muscles properly relaxed for at least the next day or so, to prevent you from straining them again."
"I wasn't the one who strained them in the first place," he noted, as she began to rub the liquid in. As Maria's fingers began to work into his muscles his neck suddenly went limp and his head lolled forward. I do believe this concoction is just a tad too potent, he thought, as words of protest died on his suddenly thick tongue.
"What on Earth? Oh, dear," Maria muttered, taking firm hold of his shoulders to keep him from sliding of the chair. Somehow the stuff had gone straight down into his arms and legs, leaving him with all the firmness of a rag doll. "Sorry about that. I always make that ointment for my own muscles. A dose suitable for me is likely overkill for a little elf like yourself." She giggled, a weirdly girlish sound coming from a grown woman, beast-kin, rather. "Well, we can't have you falling on the floor, can we?" She scooped him up in her arms with no visible effort and carried him out of the kitchen, heading towards the stairs.
He was rather glad that his tongue wasn't working, it was keeping him from yelling in protest. Even bound or in his cell he was never completely helpless before. It was a feeling he'd never been able to accept, even with the long years behind him.
She carried up the stairs slowly, trying not to jounce him. She deposited him on one of the guestroom beds, settling his head and neck carefully on a pillow that was so soft it nearly swallowed him up to his neck.
"Can't have you catching a cold," she mused aloud, then undid the drawstring of his pants and pulled them off of him, leaving Tez with only his undergarments for modesty.
I am about to be raped, he thought abstractly. But rather than continue, she merely lifted up his body slightly to pull the covers free, and laid them overtop him to ward off any potential chill.
"Now that's better, isn't it?" She drew back the covers a bit, tracing the outlines of his chest muscles lightly with her fingertips. The medicine was making him so numb that he couldn't so much as shiver from her touch. Worse, his eyes were growing heavy, and it was proving an effort to avoid unconsciousness. She rested her hand on his breastbone. "As I said, I prefer an unobstructed view of your chest." His eyes closed, and her voice faded into the distance. "Such a pretty thing…"
* * *
Tez awoke some time later, probably the next morning, judging from the light coming through the windows and the rumbling of his own stomach. He was still lying on the guest bed, the covers being pulled up to his chin sometime while he'd slept. The numbness from the medicine had passed, and thankfully so had the searing pain of his injuries. Likely it had been just strained muscles, rather than bone damage, if the remedy had been able to work as fast as it did.
His mistress was absent, though she had made sure that he wouldn't go wandering off unexpectedly by virtue of the of the padded cuff he felt around his left ankle. It was attached to a chain that snaked out from underneath the covers and wrapped around one of the bedposts. Fortunately it was long enough to allow him to slide off the bed and locate the water closet to take care of necessities. He slipped back beneath the covers just as the door opened and Maria entered, carrying a tray of food.
"Shouldn't you have servants to do that sort of thing?" he asked.
Maria set down the tray on a table beside the bed, looking disturbed. "I'm not comfortable ordering people about—"
You've no experience at all, if I judge right.
"—and at any rate, trying to find a human that would lower themselves to work under a B… …someone like me is difficult at best."
"Ah." So why not just buy a servant? You had no trouble buying me, and I have not been given any duties, beyond providing a pleasant view for you.
She put a smile on her face. "That's enough about me. How are you feeling this morning?"
He rubbed his neck carefully. There wasn't even a twinge of soreness. "Recovered, I believe."
"Good. I think you'll be ready for breakfast then," she said. Maria uncovered a plate, revealing buttered toast, cut fruit, and a sweet roll. "No eggs or meat. I've heard of elven preferences in those matters."
"They don't apply to me," he told her. "I've developed a taste for them over the years."
She raised an eyebrow. "Really? I’m surprised." She motioned to the headboard. "Grab onto the bedposts, if you would."
Well, so much for a pleasant morning breakfast. He suppressed a sigh and did as he was told, laying back down on the bed and spreading his arms wide to grab the wooden posts. To his surprise, she didn't bind his arms as he'd expected, instead merely choosing to feed him by hand, popping food into his mouth and wiping his face periodically.
"Good boy, Tez," she said, covering the emptied plates once he had finished.
Woof, he thought insolently. He didn't bother to protest as she motioned for him to stand and allow her to bind him in collar and cuffs once again before removing his leg shackle. "Do you have anything you actually wish me to do?" he demanded, once he was secured again. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, still dressed in just his undershorts, Maria flipping his leash up and down in a highly irritating manner. "This is getting quite dull."
She smiled. "What? Being sold into slavery to an exotic Beast-Kin, to be used as her whim sees fit? I'd hate to see what you do for excitement."
He smiled back coldly. "Yes, I imagine you would hate it." He was rewarded with a frown from Maria, who tugged on his leash and led him to the corner room with the drawing easel. The morning light was pouring through, heating the room up to a slightly uncomfortable temperature, probably more so for Maria, who was fully clothed.
There was a couch in front of one of the wide bay windows, which she led him to. Reaching down to grab the edge of it she lifted the couch one-handed off the floor, slipping the loop of his leash over one of the legs and dropping it back down. It was an impressive display, given that the couch was solid oak, and by Tez's estimation at least three hundred pounds in weight.
Sure that he wasn't going anywhere, Maria released the link between his cuffs, allowing him to move his arms, though she left the leather straps locked to his wrists. "Now here's that task you were looking for, Tez," she said. "Take off your undershorts, lay down on that couch, and look pretty for me while I draw you."
He shrugged. It was a request he saw no reason to refuse. It wasn't as if he hadn't been naked before strangers before, in considerably more humiliating circumstances. Still, it wouldn't do acquiesce without putting up a token protest. "I do get them back once you're done, don't I?" he asked.
"If I think you deserve them," she replied. "Now lay back on the couch and hush."
He rolled his eyes and did as he was bid, lacing his fingers behind his neck and stretching out on the couch once his was nude. Maria disappeared behind her easel with a set of charcoal pencils, humming to herself and occasionally peeking around to get a look at him.
"Roll over to your side and face away from me, please," she said. He turned away from her and faced the wall, where a few sketches, presumably hers, were framed and hanging from the wall. Most appeared to be facial studies of an old human male, a scholar Tez judged, from arcane embroidery of the collar of his robes, most likely the mage who had created, or at least trained, Maria. A few were still life images of flowers done in watercolors, and at least one was a body study of a rough looking, overweight woman, possibly the groundskeeper's wife.
"So where are you from?" he heard Maria ask from behind him.
"Very far from here," he said.
"Surely you can go into a bit more detail. I know elves aren't common in this region, but there are a few small communities."
"Where I came from is a place that no longer exists," he answered truthfully.
There was a longish pause. "Destroyed?" she asked.
"Just… …gone," he answered truthfully. "I outlived it, I suppose you could say."
She remained silent for time before choosing to speak up again. "So how did you become a slave, Tez?" he heard Maria ask behind him. "Are you a criminal?"
"Not recently," he replied. "My last employment was as a guide."
"Idiot adventurers, looking for some supposedly ancient tomb hereabouts. I took them to a few likely sights before their money began to run low. They solved that problem by knocking me over the head and selling me off to some more-unscrupulous-than-usual slave traders. They even took my clothes and the retainer they'd paid me."
Maria's voice was filled with shock. "You protested, surely!"
"I didn't see the point," he said. "Any slaver willing to buy a new slave, unconscious, without judicial papers, was unlikely to listen to any protest I ventured to make. At any rate I considered it a minor inconvenience."
"Being a slave is a minor inconvenience? Does that mean you intend to escape my clutches when the opportunity arises?"
He shrugged. "I am an elf, Mistress. Whatever happens to me, I will outlive you. Perhaps you'll sell me to take care of some debt yourself, or perhaps you'll hold onto me, but I will live longer than you. When you die, or my next owner dies, or the one after that, I will be freed."
"A bit overconfident, aren't we? What if I just leave you to someone in my will?"
"Who?" he asked. "The groundskeeper, or his wife there up on the wall? They wouldn't know what to do with me. By your own admission you aren't overly familiar with many other people. Plus, you are Beast-Kin, and by definition barren, so I have no worries about you giving me to your children."
There was silence for a good while after that, with even the scratching of Maria's charcoal pencils silent.
Oh, lovely, I've offended her. I suppose it'll be bread and water down in my dungeon for a while.
"Did anyone ever tell you that you have a remarkably impolite manner for someone whose life is in the hands of a Death Worshipper?" she said coolly.
"Death Worshippers don't kill, they persuade others to kill themselves, for the sake of a little petty temporal power. If you were going to kill me you would have done so by now, or at least have been keeping me properly locked up in that little dungeon downstairs, not leading all over your home like a cat on a leash."
"I could have you whipped for insolence."
"You could, but I doubt you would," he said.
"Because you would have done so already. Given your affinity for my chest, and Lady knows what other parts of me, it wouldn't be very satisfying to permanently mark me, would it?"
Another pause. He heard Maria stand up from her easel and walk toward him. She placed her hands on his shoulders and turned him over so that he was facing up towards her, and he could see the slight, and dangerous, red tint of her eyes. Then she put one finger on the center of his throat, just over his voice box, and applied a small amount of pressure. It wouldn't take much more than what she was exerting now to crush it and destroy his throat, insuring a swift and painful death by asphyxiation.
He closed his eyes and waited.
"Any injury can be healed by magic, or by begging favor of the gods," she whispered.
"I know." Talking made the pressure very uncomfortable.
"But some can never be healed quickly en-- Why, by Death, are you smiling?"
He opened his eyes, and saw that Maria's were back to normal, if a bit wide currently.
"Appreciating the humor of the gods, Death most especially," Tez admitted.
Maria blinked. "I think you're mad," she accused.
"Not currently," he said, "or at least I don't believe so. It's difficult to tell, when one can't trust one's interpretation of the world around oneself."
She lifted her finger away from his throat, and backed away, at first with caution, then with jerky frustration as she considered the lunacy of being frightened by someone in his current position, enslaved, collared, and naked. Opening a storage chest, she pulled a paper-wrapped bundle and tossed it towards the couch. "Here! That was supposed to be a reward for allowing me to sketch you without complaint, but I suppose I should give it to you anyway so you don't catch a chill or something."
The bundle proved to be two complete sets of clothing, tunic, pants, and underclothes, along with a pair of sandals, in his size, cut from linen in colors of neutral greens and browns. Maria must have had the farmwoman or someone tailor them for him while he'd been convalescing. "Thank you," he said, in perfect sincerity. He pulled out a pair of pants and began to put them on.
"Stop, Tez," Maria said, her composure returning. He put his pants down, and thought better of resisting as she took them away from him and set the bundle back on the floor. "I wasn't through sketching you."
"My apologies, Mistress Maria." He lay back down on the couch obediently and faced away from her once again.
"Bloody strange elf," he heard her mutter sotto voce.
* * *
His new career as a life model continued for the next few days, in various parts of the house and in the surrounding fields. She seemed intent on capturing ever aspect of his physicality, encouraging him to stand, sit or lay in various positions of varying comfort. Despite this interest, Maria never let her guard down around him, always tethering him before breaking out her charcoals and paper, and occasionally resorting to more extensive restraints when she wanted him to remain in some particularly difficult position for a length of time.
Oddly, while her interest in his exterior physicality remained high, she did not engage in any more sexual intrusions, like her initial fondling of his ears when she'd escorted him to her estates. Indeed, her manner might have been considered chaste, if it weren't for the fact that he was spending at least six hours a day in her presence nude. The rest of the time he spent in his cell, or reading in Maria's study while she worked on the mundane chores of owning a manor house, however powerful the enchantments that had been cast upon it.
Today they were sitting on a hillock behind the manor, a picnic lunch of cold chicken and wine spread out before them. Maria sat cross-legged beside him, her drawing materials nested in her lap, as she completed a study of his left ear. She interspersed sketching with bring bits of food to Tez's mouth, since his hands were restrained behind him. For once he wasn't tethered, mostly because she'd cuffed his ankles together, separated by two hands-breadth of chain.
"Why pointed?" she wondered out loud, bringing her face within a couple of inches of his right ear.
"Why rounded?" he countered.
"Less likely to damage accidentally, I think," she said. "Having ears that point upward just encourages them to catch on things, like other predator's teeth."
"My hearing is better than a human's," he pointed out.
She nodded affably. "But not as good as say, a wolf or a cat's. Now their ears are pointed to better catch the sound as they rotate about. But elven ears do not move, unlike a hunting animal's. So why pointed?"
"I haven't the slightest idea. It's not something I'd ever given much thought." Tez blinked in surprise. He actually hadn't, at least not that he could recall. How surprising!
"I made you smile again, and this time I didn't even have to physically threaten you," Maria said, her girlish grin breaking out once again. "Now what is so amusing?"
"I'm not sure you'd understand."
Maria didn't reply for a long moment. Tez turned to look at her, to find that her dark face had suddenly turned a grayish cast, her eyes were glassy, and her breath was coming out in short gasps. Before he could say anything to her, Maria's eyes rolled back into her head and she fell over, rolling a short distance down the hillock before stopping facedown.
He cursed, and rolled down beside her, tugging at his restraints in frustration. The keys were on a ring hooked to her belt, currently underneath her. He considered yelling for help, but Sinod the groundskeeper and his family had ridden out to take food to the farmer's market in town earlier that morning, and there was no one else on the manor grounds.
Tez pushed himself up against Maria's shoulder, shoving backward until he succeeded in rolling her over. If anything, she looked worse now, her face pale almost to the point of being white, and fever sweat pouring down over her face.
He maneuvered his bound hands over her waist with some difficulty, and fumbled for the proper keys. He grabbed the one that seemed most likely to be the one for the lock connecting his wrist cuffs.
There was a loud screaming noise, like a cock having its throat cut before being readied for dinner. Even the damned keys were enchanted, to prevent him from grabbing them at an unguarded moment to allow him to escape. He gritted his teeth against the ear-splitting noise (which failed to rouse Maria in the slightest) and managed to release his hands. Next he freed his legs, and chucked the offending keys off into the distance, so he could lay his inexplicably pointed ear against her breastbone to listen to her heartbeat. It was racing wildly, but at least seemed strong.
He laid her across his shoulders and frog walked back to the house, nearly collapsing twice. Like many Beast-Kin, she appeared to have quite dense muscles, making her considerably heavier than she appeared. By the time he had gotten her inside and laid out on a couch, her breathing and heart rate appeared to have slowed down somewhat, though she still looked terribly gray. He found a jug of brandy in the kitchen, and poured out a shot to slip between her lips, causing her to cough and flutter her eyes open.
"Wha-- where—" she muttered, raising her hand to her forehead and screwing her eyes shut. "Oh, Death, take me now. My head hurts abominably."
"Death almost did take you, Mistress," Tez noted, kneeling down beside her. With consciousness, Maria's color had returned somewhat, though she still looked terribly ill. "What happened out there? Was the food poisoned, do you think?"
"Not poisoned…" she muttered. Maria opened her eyes carefully, wincing against the light. "How did I get inside? The last thing I remembered, I was sketching your ear." She gave Tez an accusing glance. "And you weren't in any position to carry me."
He shrugged. "I took the liberty of freeing myself after you collapsed. It was either that or spend the afternoon next to your unconscious body."
"And yet you are still here. I'd thought you might take the chance to run."
"As I mentioned before, I'm in no particular hurry to leave," he said. Tez tapped at his collar. "Besides, your keys didn't include the one for this piece of jewelry. I'd have looked a bit suspicious traveling unaccompanied while it was still around my neck."
"Ah." She closed her eyes again, her breath finally slowed to a regular rhythm. "You called me 'mistress' just then, without any irony," she said, keeping her eyes shut. "Does that mean you accept your… um, position?"
"I don't object to it, assuming you'd be so kind as to not try and snap my neck in two again."
"If you choose to damp down your damnable backchat," she countered.
"Agreed," he said. Tez sat beside her for a time and watched her breathing, so regular that he almost thought she had gone to sleep. But then she opened her eyes to look at him, and asked a question.
"Tez," she said, "how long do elves live, really?"
He raised his eyebrows at the question. "On the average, two to three thousand years."
She nodded. "I've seen elves in the town, from time to time, but I can't say I've ever seen an old elf. Do they all look as young as you?"
Tez felt his brow wrinkle. Why was she bringing up this curious line of questioning? Was she ill in some way? He'd thought he'd seen every form of sickness and disease imaginable. He'd forgotten more about medicine than he could remember, but thought her recent collapse might be blamed upon a minor stroke, though she showed no secondary signs of such an event. Given her evident wealth, she could surely afford any manner of physician, magical, holy, or secular that she might wish.
"You'll never see an old elf, or at least one that appears old in the human sense," he said to her. "When we reach maturity, our bodies age no further. Our state, our appearance, remains fixed."
"But you do die, don't you?"
He nodded. "By misadventure only. While we are far more resistant to such common things as cold and heat, poison, or denial of food and water, we can die from injury. Even the most cautious of elves will eventually fall foul to an inconvenient tree root and break his neck as he trips, if nothing else. It's simply impossible to avoid the law of averages forever."
"And your half-breed kin, with both elf and human blood?"
"They are mortal," he said. "They live far longer than ordinary humans, perhaps as long as five hundred years, but they are mortal."
She chuckled weakly. "I should think five hundred years is enough for anybody."
"One would think," he agreed. "Now a question for you. What exactly happened to you? You said it wasn't poison, implying that you do know what it is. Would you care to enlighten me? For my part I'd be annoyed if I ended up being trapped in my cell merely because you had the bad luck to have a fainting spell while climbing the stairs and broke your neck."
"It won't happen again," she said, after a long silence, "or at least it won't happen for several months. By then, if you're good, I won't be keeping you in your cell, or even tethered."
She was being deliberately evasive, that much was obvious. For what reason he wasn't certain, except perhaps out of embarrassment. Certainly her dark cheeks had bloomed slightly while she considered answering, or perhaps that was just because she was still recovering. "That's not an answer to my question," he pressed.
Her eyes flashed red, showing a return to her old temper. "I’m not obligated to tell you anything, slave. You'd be wise not to forget that." She pulled her anger back with visible effort, and her eyes returned to normal. "Now lets go back out and retrieve whatever remains of our luncheon, and find out where you threw my key ring."
Nothing more was said of the matter that day.
* * *
Three days later.
Curiosity, that would always be his downfall, he decided. Except, of course, that it never really was. Cause of considerable pain on occasion, but it had never been his downfall. Consequences aside, this Beast-Kin, Death Worshipper woman was proving to be an interesting puzzle, which made him almost reluctant to solve the mystery behind her, fearing it to be too mundane to bear.
Which did not stop him from taking advantage of the situation, as she leaned back in her chair after the afternoon luncheon they had shared, her eyes growing heavy after devouring a meal of roast mutton. She had fed him by hand, again, which he still didn't care for but at least held his tongue against any sort of protest. Soft voice and obedience were his watchwords, at least for now, to encourage Maria to let her guard down and perhaps let more information come his way.
The midday sun coming through the solar's windows warmed the room pleasantly, and soon Maria's eyes began to flutter, then close, as she slumped down on the couch they both shared, the book she had been reading dropping from her hands to land in her lap.
Tez waited for ten minutes, watching as her breathing steadied into a regular rhythm, then ever so slowly took hold of the fabric of Maria's sleeve, lifting her arm up to slip the leather handle of his lead from around her wrist. Fortunately she'd chosen to bind his hands in front of him today, after he'd made a point of complaining about shoulder cramps the past day or so, so the maneuver wasn't as difficult as it could have been.
He padded out of the solar on bare feet, heading towards her study. The door was unlocked, Maria apparently seeing little need given the lack of servants in her household.
Honestly, the Beast-Kin woman was positively naïve about personal security. Not even the drawers to her desk were secured. Almost all were neatly organized, with deeds to the land and the manor house carefully filed, along with various other administrative paperwork. Most of it was directed at the local burghers council, based back in the city, which held dominion over the immediate area, and owed fealty in turn to the nation's monarch. Such transient matters of loyalty held little interest to Tez, and he kept digging.
One drawer seemed more personal in nature his mistress, containing unorganized bundles of parchment, most consisting of life studies and other art that Maria had apparently not considered worthy of placing on her walls. It seemed so out of character to just leave these items in a pile, that he didn't hesitate to pull them out to examine the drawer further.
Ah. There was a false bottom to the drawer. No lock that he could see, and he could only hope that it wasn't magically buggered like the keys to his restraints were. A bit of pushing softly clicked a release mechanism, and the false bottom tilted up to reveal a thick, leather-bound journal and a-- whip?
Well, perhaps reading the one would explain the other. Tez skimmed the journal quickly. It was written in a supposedly obscure Elven dialect, which would make it pretty much incomprehensible to anyone who didn't know the tongue. To Tez it proved no obstacle at all. He flipped through the beginning pages, filled with the usual drabble of an apprentice going through the painful learning process of opening up his magical abilities, hampered by the usual obfuscations common in this modern era. The mid-range of the book was where things got interesting, particularly when the now journeyman mage began dabbling in the fine art of creating unique life.
I have begun Delving into the Mysteries surrounding Creation, Tez read. Soon, I shall make for Myself the perfect Servant…
"Oh, please," he muttered, and flipped ahead.
…ideally She shall resemble the Fairer Sex, though with the inherent Strength of a Man…
…Success! I have observed a Division of the Egg! Must be careful now…
Well, he couldn't fault the man's methodology at least. He'd made fewer errors than usual creating his little Beast-Kin, fortunately for the poor village woman that he'd hired as a brood mare.
…At six Months of Age, it appears quite healthy…
"Of course, she's literally built like an ox."
He flipped ahead. There wasn't anything so far about Maria's strange falling sickness that he could see. Most of the mage's observations began to center around training her for her duties as a "Perfect Servant" around when she turned five or so.
…most Frustrating. It Understands, but It refuses to Listen…
…deliberately broke several Phials I'd told It to fetch for me…
…quite Bright, today I found her Reading a book of Poetry…
…grows Stronger every day…
…shows great Promise in maintaining my Personal accounts. It is quite intelligent Mathematically…
…It attempted to Strike at me today. I have Punished it with twelve lashes…
…such beautiful Drawings…
…I can no longer Tolerate Its attempts to Wander…
…cell constructed in Lower chambers…
…can't Understand It…
…must keep It Restrained at all Times…
The entries stopped about the time It, Maria rather, must have turned twelve or so. The entries had alternated between sometimes frothing praise for her accomplishments, with raging anger towards her evident "disobedience" which seemed to grow worse as the mage grew more elderly and frail, and his creation chafed against her restrictions.
She was kept caged when not needed, and wore chains at all times outside her cell, my cell, from perhaps the age of seven, until sometime after he'd finally died, Tez concluded. Given that upbringing, being a Death Worshipper ought to have been the least of her social aberrations.
But there was still nothing to be found about her odd seizure. Some hidden flaw in her creation, only appearing after she had achieved adolescence, perhaps? There were no clues here. Tez set the book back in the hidden compartment and shut it, and began to gather up the scattered drawing to place back on top of it.
"Did you enjoy what you read?" he heard Maria say behind him, her voice brittle with barely contained rage. He was too self-controlled to start in alarm, but instead turned slowly to face her. Her eyes were flushed red with anger, anger so deep that she was physically trembling. Tez was suddenly very aware that she stood tall while he was still on his knees, and that she was between him and the study's door.
Tez met her eyes, keeping his voice carefully neutral. "It was informative," he said.
"You had no right to go poking through my things."
He placed his cuffed hands palm down on the floor, and lowered his eyes. "No, I have no right, no rights, at all."
"Stay there," Maria ordered, "stay right there, and don't move an inch." She stumbled over to the open drawer and clumsily opened the false compartment, pulling out the whip. "Ten lashes, in payment for your curiosity."
"Yes, Mistress Maria," he said carefully, avoiding any hint of irony. Ten lashes was nothing. He'd experienced considerably worse in his day.
The whip sang through the air, and suddenly his shoulder blades were lanced with fire. The blow had landed with the full force of Maria's Beast-Kin strength, with nothing held back.
The whip sang again…
Again and again.
The pain was great, but bearable. Still, it had been a while since he'd experienced anything like it, and he couldn't help but let out involuntary grunts.
Almost done. His back was engulfed in flames, but he knew it would be over soon.
Oh, damn, she'd lost count. Oh well.
The blows were increasing in speed…
The blood was starting to rush through his ears, clouding his hearing, but he could still make out what sounded like racking sobs coming from Maria. She hasn't lost count, she's lost control.
He gave up any pretense of defiance, and let out a loud cry of alarm and pain.
He dropped flat to the floor, and tried to draw up into a protective ball. "No you don't," Maria snarled, grabbing his collar and yanking him semi-upright. One hand half-choked him by the grip on his neck, the other still flashed the whip with mad abandon.
Whether from his windpipe being partially crushed or from the pain, he fell unconscious some time around then. Before the room went completely dark, he hoped that Maria would at least realize to stop once he finished bleeding to death.
* * *
He woke lying facedown on the cot in his cell. His wrists and ankles were bound loosely to the iron rings with leather cuffs and chains, preventing him from rolling over. Which wouldn't have been a very good idea anyway, given the probable condition of his back. It was numb from the base of his neck to his legs, probably from a dose of Maria's potent muscle relaxant. Certainly he was in no desire to move, even if he'd been allowed too.
"Are you awake, Tez?" He turned his head to see Maria sitting in a chair beside his cot. Her face was drawn, and her eyes red-rimmed from crying, not rage if he judged correctly.
"I'm awake." He tugged briefly at his restraints. "These aren't needed. I'm not inclined to move, believe me."
A ghost of a smile crossed her face. "It helped when I was applying the healing salves. You kept trying to roll over." Her fingers brushed across his back, and he flinched at their cool touch. The skin was ridged with overlapping, half healed scars, resistant even to the efforts of enchanted potions. It would be a long time before they were healed completely. "I'm so sorry," she said.
"The beating? I won't deny that I deserved it. I deliberately violated your privacy for the sake of my own curiosity. For that I apologize."
Maria's jaw dropped. "Apologize, to me? I lost control and nearly beat you to death!"
He couldn't exactly shrug in his position, but he managed an approximation by inclining his head. "Nearly is not actually. In retrospect I know I would have survived anyway, healing salves or not."
"You're mad, do you know that? Madder than I am." She shook her head, and buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shuddering from either laughter or tears, he could not tell.
"I don't regard you as mad," he said. Maria sniffed loudly and lifted her head up.
"I nearly killed you," she repeated. "I haven't lost control that badly since… since…"
"Since your late master found reason to beat you?" Tez guessed.
Something of her previous anger came up, enough to drive the tears away at least. "You shouldn't have read that," she said. "It's hideous. I thought I was being bad, but when he finally had the grace to die, I puzzled through his notes and figured out just what an ass he really was."
"Yet you kept it, even afterward," he said.
"It was all I had of how I was made," she replied simply.
In for a pence, in for a pound. Guilt was making her more talkative at least. "And the whip?" he inquired.
"I don't know why," she admitted. "Perhaps out of morbidity. He used it so often towards the end, I was almost used to the pain. I suppose I kept it to prove to myself that I was not like him." Her hands clenched. "I don't want to be like him. But when I was angry, I used it anyway, and worse than he ever did to me."
"Stress atavism," he said. "Its common among Beast-Kin of all stripes. And I dare say I gave you better provocation than you ever gave to him."
"Death take me, would you please stop apologizing!" she demanded.
It was measure of how heavily drugged he had to be that he very nearly replied, "Sorry," to her order. "I'm not upset by what you did, if that helps you," he said instead.
"How could you not be?"
"I've had worse, much worse, done to me. For reasons that I completely deserved."
Her eyebrows were raised in disbelief. Good, she was distracted from her own worries, at least for a moment. "What's worse then having the skin flayed off your back by a bullwhip?"
Well, he would have reached this point with her eventually. It was just happening a bit sooner than he expected. He took a deep breath and began.
"I once betrayed a man, for completely justified reasons, or so I believed at the time. He nearly had everything he'd rightly earned stripped away from him. It drove him to distraction that he could not even prove my perfidy, even though he knew I was the only one who could have caused him such harm."
"At the time I was in an arrogant state of mind, convinced that no mere human could ever touch me. I discovered that I had left myself open to the man's own trickeries, and found myself his prisoner. I offered apologies, I offered bribes, but he would have none of this. His revenge upon me would be epic, you see, to match my crimes against him."
"What happened to you?" Maria asked. "What did he do?"
"First he cut off my hands, which had written the reports that had damned him to his liege lord. Then he cut off my feet, which had carried me away after my deed was done. Then he cut out my tongue, which had said so many soothing lies. Then he cut off my ears and poured hot lead into the holes, so I would not hear his deepest secrets. Then he cut out my eyes, which had gazed covetously upon his wife. Finally he cut off my genitals, which had known her pleasures."
Amazing, he hadn't thought that a face as dark as Maria's could turn so white. She stammered for a few moments, and finally said, "But you are whole before me now."
Tez kept his voice flat, unemotional. It had all been so very long ago. But this was a memory he knew would stay sharp in his mind, when all others fled him. "I was fed and cared for in the dungeons below. Occasionally when he saw the need, the man would parade me before his peers, showing me off as proof of what happened to those who betrayed him. I learned this much later you understand, once I was whole again."
"How did you ever… ever…?"
"Survive? By going utterly mad. I had only my own mind for company, and in the darkness my mind and reason eventually fled in utter fear of me. I gibbered, I drooled, and I threw myself down whenever I sensed I was near the edge of a stair, hoping by some miracle that I would snap my own neck. I was never that fortunate."
She swallowed. "How did you escape this?"
"By compassion from the man's descendants. He placed notice in his will that, no matter his fate, his sons were to do everything in their power to keep my alive in my prison of flesh. But one of them, a great-grandson, was sickened by what he saw, and what his ancestor had done. So he arranged for a miracle."
"Wait, wait," Maria interrupted. "Great-grandson? How long were you in that state?"
Tez closed his eyes briefly, trying to banish the darkness behind them. "By my eventual reckoning, approximately two hundred years."
She raised a hand to her throat, trying to hold herself back from saying something plainly stupid in the way of apology for his fate.
Tez continued. "This descendant begged, literally begged, a boon from his god, to repair my body and restore the honor of his house. I don't know exactly what he sacrificed. All that I knew was that I gradually became aware of light and sound returning to my world, along with the other things that had been taken from me."
"You… you must have been grateful to him."
"I never got the chance to thank him. Even when my senses and limbs were returned to me, I was still utterly mad. The monks of that place of healing cared for me as best they could, but it was still another two hundred years after that that I returned to anything resembling a clear mental state."
"What did you do then, how could you possible retrieve the threads of your life?"
"I didn't," he replied. "Instead, I recreated myself. Fifty years after I left the place of healing, I returned to that man's lands with an army ten times the size of his descendant's forces. I killed every soldier he had, burned down every village, destroyed every castle. I tore up their foundations from the ground, and salted the farmers' fields. I even burned down the forests in the land because it so offended me to see such vibrant living things in that place."
"Then I took every man who had not fought, and every woman that loved them, and made them watch as I slit the throats of their children in front of them. Then I commanded my army to rape and murder the women, and it was done. And then… I cut off their limbs, cut out their senses, and lopped away the genitals of every man in that land, leaving them to starve. I killed, and killed, and killed, and killed. When it was done I could have sailed a boat in the sea of blood I had created."
Maria was not moving. Was not crying, was not showing fear. Was not able to make any sort of reaction to his terrible narration. Finally her mouth opened, closed, opened again, finally admitting a soft query, "And then?"
"I went back to the place of healing, and told them exactly what I had done. At my request they walled me into a cell, leaving only a small slot as my connection to the outer world. It was a very long time before I felt it was safe enough for them to release me once again."
Dead silence. He cleared his throat and added, "So you see, there isn't anything you can possibly do to me that I don't actually deserve. No need to feel guilty at all."
"…at all," Maria breathed. She stood up from her chair suddenly, backing away from him, as if he might leap out of his bonds and assault her right there. "I… need to consider what you have said… claimed. I'll attend to you later." She left the room, walking backwards, and shut the door firmly, throwing the latches home with firm thumps.
Should have asked her to release me, he thought. I hope she comes back before I have to urinate.
* * *
When she returned some hours later, Maria's expression had calmed. Indeed, she looked a little irritated with him.
"I don't appreciate you lying to me," she began, "or at any rate, trying to either scare me or assuage my feelings by coming up with that horrible story." She reached over and released his bonds, and he rolled over onto his side, stretching out his limbs after several hours of enforced motionlessness.
"I haven't lied to you," he said. He reached over to the pitcher and poured himself a cup of water.
"There is nothing in my history books, or any other tome that I've studied, that even mentions anything vaguely like the massacre that you've described," Maria insisted. "Something like that couldn’t have just been forgotten, even if it happened a thousand years ago."
"It didn't happen a thousand years ago," he said.
"It happened a hundred and seventy-five thousand years ago, give or take a millennia," he said. "Even elven records don't survive that long."
Maria stared at him. "You expect me to believe that you were alive a hundred and seventy-five thousand years ago?"
He smiled thinly at her. "Believe it or not, I don't really care. The story I told you was the absolute truth, allowing for the veil time draws across personal memories."
"I thought you said elves live only for two or three thousand years?"
"On average," he noted. "I am, I've found, the exception that is determined to prove the rule. For whatever reason, I haven't died yet, and believe me at times it wasn't for lack of trying."
Maria made a disbelieving snort. "So old are you, supposedly?"
"Mmm. By my reckoning, approximately three hundred and sixty thousand years old, give or take one or two tens of millennia. There are times when I've lost track."
Her expression did not noticeably improve. "That's impossible! No one could possibly live that long. There must be gods that aren't as old you claim! Certainly elven civilization is no where near that old."
He took another sip of water. "Quite possibly. As for my people's civilization, you are quite correct. I have very vague memories of my youth, spent in caves in a hidden valley, and days of wandering about the countryside, keeping alert for predators as we gathered promising berries from the local vines. Sometimes we kept alert for other humanoids, particularly the tall, hairy ones, with the disgusting rounded ears. I existed before there was anything like elven civilization. I existed almost before we'd developed a proper language. And all that I know is that I have survived. When other elves have fallen to war, famine, and accident, I survive."
"Without ever changing?"
"Oh, I've changed, in mind if not body," he told her. "I've been a saint, I've been a madman. I've been a warrior and a thief. I've been a sailor and a merchant. A leader of men, and a betrayer of them. I've been very, very rich, and I've been a slave in circumstances far more onerous than this. But the one thing I've never been is dead, and I'm not sure I ever can be."
Maria was shaking her head. "I still can't believe you. No one could possibly survive for that long. You mean no one has ever tried to murder you?"
"They never succeeded," he said modestly.
"You've never felt so broken that you've attempted suicide?"
"I've tried," he said, "repeatedly. It's never worked."
She frowned. "Don't insult my intelligence."
"I'm not," Tez insisted, raising his hands in supplication. "I tell you I've tried. I take poison, and my stomach vomits it up. I slit my wrists and a well-meaning friend, or an anonymous Samaritan, comes to my rescue. I try to hang myself, and the rope breaks, or the branch breaks, or some other damned thing happens. I've tried to have myself assassinated at least three times. Twice, the would be murderer was arrested by the police, and the third time he converted to a life of peace and penance before going through with it. Once I bought a ship, poured pitch over the decks, climbed to the highest yardarm, chained an anvil to my legs, set a noose around my neck, then dropped a torch onto the deck and leaped off to either break my neck, burn to death, or drown."
"Not enough play in the rope," he said with a shrug. "I started choking instead of snapping my neck, and by the time the yardarm collapsed into the water from the fire, the commotion had attracted the attention of a group of sympathetic merfolk who rescued me."
"You're joking." Maria blinked. "Dear, God, you're not joking?"
"Believe me, I lack sufficient imagination to make these things up. I wouldn't believe them if I didn't know they had happened to me. Eventually I gave up. I would call myself cursed, except I can't recall ever insulting a god to my knowledge, and you'd think after all this time they would have visited me to gloat over my predicament."
She looked him over carefully, taking his measure after his confession. Every word he had said to her was the truth. Whether she chose to believe him was quite another thing altogether.
Odd. He could feel himself wanting her to believe him. Dangerous that. She was still a Death Worshipper, and a Beast-Kin, and by those definitions was one of both questionable morals and mercurial temperament, no matter what the circumstances of her upbringing that might have driven her to the choices she'd made to get where she was. He had the scars on his back to prove it.
After a long silence, she finally declared, "I think you are sincere."
"Thank you for that much," he said.
Maria's mouth quirked upward into something near a smile. "'Sincere' doesn't mean 'believable'," she added. "I'm more inclined to think you are utterly, and politely, as mad as a ruby-juice addict."
"Granted, that would be the more logical conclusion," he admitted.
"After hearing your little confession, especially the bits about engaging in mass rapine and murder, can you give me a reason why I shouldn't clap you in heavy irons and keep you like that until I can sell you off to someone who lives on the opposite side of the continent?"
He drew himself up cross-legged on the bed. "None whatsoever," he said, "except that I can give you my admittedly meaningless word that I am not the man I was."
"Quite right," she said with a sigh. She opened up his dresser, drawing out his collar and lead. "Bend your neck."
He complied with her order without protest, and she finished by securing his lead to one of the iron rings at the head of his bed. "Do you feel safer now?" he asked when she'd finished.
She shook her head. "I don't know," Maria admitted, "and I doubt more chains would help that."
"Quite right," he agreed. Tez stood, and demurely clasped his hands behind himself. "Well, I've no doubt brought you entertainment by answering your questions about myself. Would you be willing at least to answer two of mine?"
"I may," she said cagily. "Ask, and I will decide whether to or not."
Nodding, he began, "From what I recall of your late and unlamented master's experiments, you were created scarcely less than two decades ago. Yet, and I do not mean this to insult your appearance, you look as if you are a woman of a more mature thirty-five or so. Am I correct, or are your late master's notes more accurate?"
"The answer is yes," she said. "Make of that what you will."
"I don't suppose you'd be willing to elaborate on that statement?"
"Not right now," she said, "perhaps later, if time allows. What's your next question?"
Tez took in a deep breath, and drew himself up to his full height, which was still a head shorter than Maria. "Mistress Maria, for what purpose did you go to the trouble of purchasing me for?"
Maria eyes broke away from his and her face grew flush, which was really all the answer he needed. She turned away from him without a word, and slammed the door shut behind her.
* * *
Ages. He'd been bad at judging ages, in first few centuries after humans became sufficiently civilized that elves bothered to interact with them. He'd always make the mistake of assuming that any human who was close to his own height and physical appearance was automatically an adult, while anyone appearing older had to be utterly venerable. It had made for some amusing errors, early on. Amusing in retrospect anyway.
But he'd learned from his mistakes eventually. Over the long millennia, if there was one thing he'd become an expert at, it was judging the ages of humans. He'd seen countless generations of acquaintances grow old, their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren growing old as well, until it became too painful for him to bother with anymore than the most cursory interactions with them. He had the same problem with his elven kin, but at least they weren't accustomed to being born, growing to adulthood, and then dying in a lifespan resembling that of a mayfly. So pegging Maria's age by her physical appearance ought to have been a simple act. Except that it somehow wasn't.
Interesting, he thought, and smiled briefly to himself. He was still laying abed in his quarters, restricted by the length of his lead from leaving his bedchamber. Tez stared up at the ceiling, trying to puzzle out the mystery that was Maria the Beast-Kin.
Possibility Number One: She is lying about her age. Unlikely, but possible. It only begged the question why she would bother.
Possibility Number Two: The Beast-Kin mentioned in the mage's journal was not Maria. This was somewhat more likely, he thought. But her anger at discovering him reading it had been very real, and very deeply felt. It couldn't have been feigned. Or rather, given the state of his back, he rather hoped not. Otherwise he was owned by a full-blown sadist.
Possibility Number Three: She told the truth. She is eighteen in temporal age, and thirty-five or so in appearance. Which just begged the question as to how this was possible. No magic could create such an effect, and it was hardly an advantage to her to appear older anyway, unless she was deliberately trying to impress someone who preferred that in his female companions.
The door latches rattled, and he sat up in his bed, dismissing speculation for the moment. Maria entered, dressed in a simple linen nightshirt, her hair unbound, and her feet bare. Her expression was tentative, nervous, and Tez mentally kicked himself for even thinking she might be an adult. Eighteen was the right age, unlikely as it was. Eighteen, the age when elves began to stop speaking baby-talk, and other races tentatively marked their children as adults, with all the terrible responsibility that implied. Such as owning a slave for the purpose of sex, who had proved a much more complicated being than she'd ever imagined.
"Close your eyes and turn away from me," she ordered, "I don't want you to look at me."
"Yes, Mistress," he said, and turned around to face the wall. He felt her climb onto the bed behind him. She drew him close against her, one arm around his chest to draw him near, pulling him tight against her. Maria's breath tickled his ear, as her other hand wandered down to the waist of his pants. Both her hands were shaking, and the one made a hash of trying to untie the drawstring above his crotch. He placed his own over hers, and tried to calm the trembling.
First time jitters. Those he experience dealing with. "It's all right," Tez began, "I can—"
"Be quiet!" Maria interrupted, her voice trembling as well. "Don’t speak to me, don't look at me."
"If I don't look in your direction, it's going to be rather difficult to accomplish what you bought me for," he pointed out, his voice neutral.
"I said be quiet," she replied. "Do you want me to gag you?"
He shook his head, rather than be impertinent and answer her aloud. Maria's hands withdrew, and a black silken kerchief was wrapped around his eyes, placing him in darkness. Tez felt an involuntary shudder pass through him, as he fought to banish the irrational fear rising up within him. This situation was not the same as the one he had so coolly described to Maria earlier today. It was ridiculous for him to be nervous.
"Lay down on your back," she ordered. He did as he was bid, and felt her wrap the leather cuffs around his wrists and ankles once again, pulling the straps tight, pinning him into position for what was to come.
It isn't as if you haven't been used for sex… raped… before, he reminded himself. It wasn't even as if he hadn't been restrained for sex before, more often for pleasure than to overcome reluctance. He waited patiently for Maria to finish undoing the laces of his pants and get on with things.
She did nothing of the sort. Tez heard her snuffle, then start to cry.
"Mistress Maria?" he said softly. She started to cry even harder at that. Hands fumbled at the catches of his wrist straps, and in a moment his right hand was free. With some difficulty he freed his left on his own, and then pulled the blindfold away. He found Maria sitting on the edge of his bed, arms wrapped around herself, weeping miserably.
Eighteen, he thought, definitely eighteen. He freed his ankles, and moved to a sitting position beside her, not touching her, but close enough for her to feel he was there.
"It would have been all right," he said gently, when she paused in her sobbing to regain her breath.
"Please, don't," she began. She gulped back a sob and finished, "Don't try and tell me you've been raped before, that it means nothing to you."
"I hadn't intended to," he replied. "I won't claim I'd have liked it, but I certainly have experienced worse than you could have managed."
She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her nightgown. "And deserved it, I suppose."
"Well, yes," Tez admitted. He frowned, not wanting to ask he next question, but knowing it had to be brought into the open air. "Did your old master… did he…?"
"No," Maria said, quick enough for him to believe her, but not so quick to imagine she'd prepared the denial in advance. "No, he never touched me… touched me like that, I mean. I was beneath his contempt for that sort of thing." She sniffed, and smiled a little. "Anyway I don't think he could have brought his sword to bear anyway, no matter what sort of potions he brewed."
"So, you're still a maiden?" he ventured to ask.
"Yes," Maria said. "No human man would have a Beast-Kin in his bed, no matter if she was landed and independent."
Tez's face brightened, and he deliberately widened his smile. "Well, you should have said something then. Believe me, I have no objections to giving you the benefit of my experience in such matters."
"I didn't want… I didn't want to buy you to… That is, I wanted you to…"
"You wanted me to want to, not just because you ordered me," he finished, more serious now. She nodded her head miserably. "I'm flattered that you think so highly of me," he said, all hints of humor gone now.
"How could I not, for the father of my children," she said softly, her voice barely a whisper.
Tez blinked. "Father?" he repeated. She nodded again. "But you're a Beast-Kin," he said. "You aren't capable of…" He glanced down at the band around her upper arm, the golden death's head.
Fool, you are finally growing senile to miss such obvious clues.
"What did you sacrifice, for the sake of true fertility?" he asked, though he was certain now of the answer.
"A life," Maria said. "Half of a life rather. My life." She rubbed the last of her tears from her eyes. "I'll venture that I'll be dead before I am long in my middle age," she said. "That was the price I paid, to Death, so that I might warm life in my belly. If I am fortunate, I will have two children, perhaps three, that I will have time to raise to adulthood before He comes for me."
"Aging," she finished. "Every time that happens, I can feel how much older I am becoming. So I know Death is taking his part of the bargain. It was up to me to find a suitable mate so I could get what I 'd wanted out of it."
"And then you saw an elf on the slave blocks, that could give your children all the life, and more, that you denied yourself," he concluded. "And you chose me, who has had more life than he ever wanted. How… ironic." I spit upon all gods, and their unfathomable senses of humor.
"Very," she agreed, rubbing her nose. "I was, I am rather, going to free you, as soon as the last of our children were born. I wasn't going to keep you any longer than I needed to."
Tez snorted in irritation. "Do you think so little of me," he said, "that I would not want to see a child of mine grow into maturity?"
Her eyes widened in surprise. "You'd be willing to stay?"
"I was willing to stay before," he pointed out. "I have had many children, Maria, and know what a unique pleasure it is to see them grow, and give them the benefit of my experiences."
"But if everything you said about yourself is true, they will die well before you," she pointed out.
"Everyone does," he said. "It is the burden I must bear. But at least I can have the satisfaction of knowing I brought something good into the world, for however brief a time."
He brought his arm around her waist, and Maria did not shy away. Tez kissed her gently on the cheek and said, "Now, if you will permit, I will give you the benefit of my experience."
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