Here’s a short story (not very short. I’m a novel writer, after all) for your enjoyment. You might say it was inspired by 35 years of marriage. You might not say that if my wife, Linda, was within earshot. Thank you for your consideration of my conjugal welfare.
All Sorts of Slaves
The old man had no chance. One moment he was whistling merrily along the forest road, his toolbox on his shoulder. The next moment, the point of a spear was at his throat, a pale, dirty face leering at him from the other end.
“Don’t try it, old geezer.”
He regarded the face placidly. “Try what?”
“I wouldn’t think of it. What do you want?”
“Me? I’m not worth anything.”
“Let Master Krajek be the judge of that. Put your hands behind your back.”
“What do I do with the toolbox?”
“Is that what it is? What kinda tools?”
“Carpentry tools. I’m a carpenter.”
The new information worked its way through the spearman’s brain.
“I’ll just put the rope around your neck. You can carry the tools.”
“Thank you. I’ll be needing them.”
A noose was snugged up, not gently, around his throat, and a shove indicated the direction of travel. Obediently, he trudged up the trail, west into the border mountains.
He was no longer whistling. It didn’t seem appropriate to the situation.
The slavers’ camp was as one would expect, but smaller, shabbier, and hardly frightening. If one didn’t consider the rope around one’s neck. A tall man with greasy blond hair was hammering a neck fetter at a crude forge. As captor and prey entered the clearing, he sauntered over. “What you got there, Radec?”
“Merchandise, Master Krajek. Picked him up down on the road.”
As the slaver checked him over the old man stood still, despite the prodding. “What did you bring him for? Useless. Probably die before we even get to Draza.”
“Says he’s a carpenter. He’s tough enough to pack that box of tools.”
“Yes, and it’s heavy.”
The two slavers turned as if to look at a strange new animal. Even a non-slave could tell this was not a good thing.
“What was that. Radec?”
“I don’t know, Master Krajek. Sounded like talkin’.”
“Talkin’? From a slave?”
“Coulda bin. Whadaya think?”
“I think there’s a slave somewhere who don’t know his place.”
“You’re the one to straighten him out, Master Krajek.”
“Truth, Radec. I’m the one to straighten him out.”
If the old man thought this comedy routine would satisfy them, he was quickly disappointed; his feet were kicked out from under him, and a heavy sandal took the wind from his lungs. As he lay gasping, they continued.
“That’s a better sound, don’t you think?”
“I sure don’t hear any talkin’, Master Krajek.”
“Maybe the lesson sunk in then.”
“I dunno, Master. What if it didn’t?”
“Then we give it again, I guess. Whadaya think, Slave?”
The old man looked up suspiciously. “Am I allowed to speak, Master?”
“Slave, I ask a question, you answer, and not with another question!” The hard foot drew back.
“The lesson was received, Master. Very forcibly, I might add.”
The foot returned to the earth. “Careful about addin’ things, Slave. Might seem like getting’ above yourself.”
“Yes, Master.” It seemed to be a safe response.
The slavemaster turned to his underling. “Shackle him up with the rest. If he makes it to Draza, maybe he’ll be worth somethin’.”
The following day, the slaver wandered over to where his merchandise was sitting in a dejected group.
“Old man, I wanta talk to you.”
The old man rose, only to be slammed to the ground. “When I speak, you answer, ‘Yes, Master.’ Got it?”
“Good. We’ll have you teached up right quick. You wanta survive, you learn fast.”
“Come over here, Slave. I gotta figure out what to do about you.”
“I usually don’t have to do this. A slave is a slave, you ask the best price for the strongest and the prettiest. Sweet ‘n’ simple. I don’t like complications.”
“I can understand that, Master.”
“I ain’t lookin’ for understandin’, Slave. I’m lookin’ for ways to simplify this sityation, that don’t involve leavin’ you in the bushes with your head bashed. That would be a waste. I don’t like waste. But what’s my other choice?”
There was a pause, while the old man considered the possibilities, none particularly appealing.
“Master Krajek, may I make a suggestion?”
“What kind of suggestion would I listen to, coming from a slave?”
“One that might increase your profits, Master.”
The greasy head turned slowly, and the pale eyes regarded the slave. “Talk.”
“I don’t know much about being a slave, but it seems to me that it would be good for both of us if I brought the highest price possible.”
“Hunh! Tell me somethin’ I don’t know.”
“My tool box, Master. The badge of my trade. My tools show that I’m worth more. Now, you could probably take my tools and sell them for a bit extra, but then you’d have difficulty proving that I’m worth a carpenter’s price. I’m too old to get a good price as a worker.
“I guess what I’m saying is that my tools and I together are worth more than we are apart.” He risked a glance up. “Master.”
The slave trader nodded. “Could be.”
“I’ll even carry them.”
“Damn right you’ll carry them, if I say so. You’re a slave. You’ll do what I say, and don’t you forget it.”
“Yes, Master. I’ll carry the tools. Should I go and get them now?”
A cuff sprawled him on the ground. “You got too many ideas. I let a slave get his first idea, then his next idea is he should try and escape. I don’t like that. Cuts into the profits. Wasteful.”
The old man picked himself up, kept his head bowed. A response seemed required. “Yes, Master. Wasteful.”
“Damn tootin’ ‘Yes Master’. Now you get out there and find that toolbox, and you bring it to my tent. I’ll take care of it.”
“Well, what’r’ya waitin’ for?”
“I’m sorry, Master. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to leave. I will go now, Master, as you command.” He moved almost quickly enough to escape the swing of the sandal that hurried him on his way: not enough to hurt, but enough to seem like it did some good. He was getting the knack of this slave business.
Once they had collected five more “stock,” Master Krajek decided it was time to move. The slaves were linked together, loaded with the goods of the camp, and hustled out on the trail. The carpenter carried his tools on his shoulder and a tent strapped to his back. After and hour of stumbling over rocky trails, he was sorry he’d offered, but he kept gamely on. There was no other choice.
They probably crossed into Draza some time on the second day – it was hard to tell on the mountain trails – and descended into a scruffy village. Ready-made pens and a large number of inns showed the mercantile nature of the town. The old man kept his eyes open and filed all he saw away for the future.
The slave market was appropriately degrading. The younger slaves were stripped for the experience, but it was not considered necessary for the old man. He thought this a bonus, as his many scars might spark untoward questions.
In the end he was sold, for what seemed a good price, to a decently dressed but common-looking man, whom he gathered was the slavemaster or overseer for a local manor. He took heart from the fact that the man motioned him to throw his toolbox into the back of the horse cart, and allowed him to get in behind it. He settled himself as comfortably as his bony posterior would allow, and regarded the landscape carefully as they drove. It was a long, rough ride, but bearable, all things considered. So far, the whole situation was turning out harder than he had expected.
“Just about there.”
His calculations were broken by this laconic outpouring, and he twisted around to look ahead.
As the wagon topped the ridge and started down into the valley, the old man had his first lift of hope. It was a beautiful setting. The manor, a central tower spreading protective wings around its courtyard, stood on a rise, overlooking orderly fields. Two streams bracketed the hill, joining where the road crossed on a sturdy bridge.
“A fine manor.”
“Looks in good repair.”
“Lady Jana and me, we run a tight demesne, Slave. Anyone shirks feels my lash.” The Overseer glared over his shoulder. “Don’t you forget it.”
“Nobody ever accused me of shirking my duties.”
“We’ll see about that, too.”
“I’m a good worker, Overseer. You’ll see.”
“I will. And you don’t call me Overseer. You call me Master.”
Lady Jana was a woman past 40, with a face of the strength that charitable folk call handsome, and none would dare call homely. Pleasant to look at all the same. Good posture, he thought. Simple gown, unadorned hair. Her frown made her much less alluring.
“Do you know what you’re here for, Slave?”
He knew how to answer this one. “To serve you however I can, Mistress.”
The frown eased. “Precisely. My Overseer tells me you are a carpenter.”
“What kind of carpenter?”
“Anything you like, Mistress: a new chair, a new barn?”
“I don’t need either of those.”
“What do you need, Mistress?”
“It is not for the Slave to ask questions.”
“I only seek to serve you, Mistress. I apologize for my errors. I have never been a slave before.”
“Be that as it may. I find you impertinent.” Had he been raised a slave, her look would have put fear into his heart. As it was, he regarded her placidly.
“I’m sorry for that, Mistress. I suppose it is part of my character.”
“It is a part of your character you are going to erase, and I am quite willing to help you.”
“I thank you, Mistress.”
“I don’t think you will, somehow. Overseer!”
“Yes, my Lady?”
“Take him out and give him the introductory ten. Use the broad whip. I need him to start work tomorrow.”
“Yes, my Lady. Come here, you.” He dragged his victim to a small gravel court, bare except for a set of stocks bolted to a heavy post. He jerked the slave’s robe to his waist, slapped his wrists into the stocks, and strode to a nearby wall, where several whips hung ready.
“Now, listen up, Slave. This is not a real flogging. This is just a warning, a little welcome to make sure you know your place. You give me cause for a real flogging, and you won’t sleep on your back for a month. The Mistress is expecting this to hurt, and it’s my job to make sure it does. You’re allowed to yell. It won’t do you any good to tough it out; might do you harm. Yelling shows the right attitude. Got it?”
“I’m afraid so.” The new slave tried to prepare himself, tried to deal with the enormity of what was about to happen to him. Then the first stroke hit, and all his preparation disintegrated in pain.
The Overseer applied his trade with a will, and it was very easy for the slave to comply with his part. He had never found counting to ten to take so long. When it was finished, the Overseer clapped him companionably on the shoulder as he unshackled him, producing another yelp,. “Pretty satisfactory, old fellow. You learn your place, and you won’t have to be back here too often.”
The new slave tried to control the sobbing in his breath, and mumbled a “Yes, Master.”
“From the look of your scars, you’ve hurt worse.”
“Yes, Master.” Fortunately most of his wounds had been on his front.
“You’re off duty for the rest of the day. Standing orders. You’ll find my Lady a reasonable mistress, but she won’t be trifled with.”
“I’m getting that impression.”
“They usually do.” With more casual disregard for the old man’s sore back, he shoved him in the direction of a nearby door. “Go in there. Milly will see to your back, and get you settled in. She’s good at that, Milly.”
Milly turned out to be a young slave, fresh-faced without the disadvantage of being pretty. She tut-tutted over his back, applying a cool salve to help with the pain, and a hearty dose of sympathy to soothe his anger.
Soon he was lying on his stomach on a cot in the men’s quarters, reviewing his progress. If this was the worst that happened, he supposed he could survive. If he somehow got on somebody’s wrong side, he wondered how long he would last. His people did not use slaves, and he found the whole idea unsettling, especially when applied so directly to his own situation.
The next morning, he was summoned into the presence of the Mistress.
“I have duties for you, Slave.”
“This alcove is set off the main hallway to allow me a cosy spot to eat and relax for informal meals. However, I find it exposed, both to the view of those in the hall, and to cool drafts from the windows.”
“Are you thinking of a partial wall, Mistress?”
She continued as if he had not spoken. “I am thinking of a partial wall, starting at this corner and coming out about…” she gestured, “…this far. Then I can rearrange the furniture, and get some privacy and some warmth.”
“And I’m going to move that sideboard to the niche over there.”
“Do you wish to cut the sideboard or the wall, Mistress?”
She regarded him as if he were a slow child. “It is a stone wall, and that sideboard is a family heirloom.”
He knew better than to respond.
“I do apologize. I was unaware that you had asked a question, Mistress.”
“Don’t play games, slave. Why did you say that?”
“The sideboard is about three fingers too long to fit in that niche, Mistress.”
“No it isn’t.”
“I am new to being a slave, Mistress. Sometimes I don’t know how to say something.”
“And what do you wish to say, Slave?”
“I wish to know the correct way to inform my mistress that she is in error.”
Her face took on an ominous cloud. “I am in error?”
“I don’t know, Mistress. I merely wish to know how to proceed, should such an unlikely occurrence…occur.”
Her nose went up. “I should hope that I am a sufficiently confident person to be able to recognize an error without reprisal on he who corrected me.”
He kept his face perfectly straight. “May I get my ruling stick then, Mistress?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, Slave, please get your ruling stick.”
Assuming that people do not usually say ‘please’ to their slaves, he took this as an ominous sign. He bowed low and scurried over to his toolbox, retrieved the ruler, unfolded it, and held it out to her.
She stared as if at some sort of reptile. “Whatever are you thinking?”
“You commanded me to bring the ruler my L…Mistress.”
Her eyes narrowed further, and her answer came through tight lips. “I don’t plan to use it myself, man. Measure the damn sideboard.”
“Yes, Mistress.” He did so, then glanced meaningfully towards the alcove, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, yes, the alcove, too.”
She tapped her foot once, seemed to restrain herself. “And…?”
“One and one-half fingers too small, Mistress.” He kept his head down.
“You said three, Slave.”
“I apologize for my error, Mistress.”
“So what are we going to do?”
He dared to look up. Her eyes were scanning the room. He did the same. Then, glancing her way every once in a while for permission, he paced the area, sizing up lengths of wall, dimensions of furniture. Once she had lost her aggressive pose he stopped, head down, looking up at her.
“What do you think?”
“Will there be any furniture added, Mistress? Any removed?”
“No. My intention is merely to place a section of wall and rearrange the room.”
“I understand, Mistress. May I make a request?”
“If you had a sheet of parchment about so big,” he demonstrated, “that I could use to sketch up some ideas…”
“Parchment is very expensive. I don’t usually waste it on slaves.”
“I use charcoal, so the parchment can be cleaned and returned.”
“You will say ‘Mistress’ when you speak to me.”
“It can be cleaned and returned, Mistress.”
“Hmm. All right. See the steward.”
“Carpenter, these plans are very neatly done.”
“I find it useful to be precise, Mistress.”
“I like this one, but you have placed the writing table on the wrong side of my chair. I write with my left hand.”
“I apologize, Mistress. I should have noticed.”
“Since you have never seen me writing, I fail to understand how. Be careful of the false humility, Slave. It hints of sarcasm.”
“I assure you, Mistress…”
She waved a hand. “I know, I know. Stop wasting my time with games. What is this going to cost?”
He turned the parchment over. “Depending on your choice of wood, and the prices of the local merchants…we’ll know when we get to the market.”
“And there we have a problem.”
“Yes, Mistress? What problem?”
“There will be no ‘we’ going to the market. I am much too busy to go.”
“But you cannot go alone.”
“Whatever you say, Mistress.”
“There is some trouble with the new well, which is taking extra time from the Overseer. He cannot go, either.”
“Would you like me to work on the well until the problem is solved, Mistress?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Could you do that?”
“I could try, Mistress. It depends on the problem.”
“I don’t know what the problem is. They just stopped working.” She thought a moment, then looked up to realize that there were three slaves waiting to talk to her. She made an impatient gesture. “Go down there and see if you can be of use. I want this room finished.”
The problem at the well was due to a collapsed casing, easily replaced. Once the Overseer realized that the repairs were well underway, he left the carpenter in charge, and went about his business. Soon the well shaft was safe again, and the field hands went back to digging. The old man made his way back to the Manor house, satisfied with his morning’s work.
“I thought I told you to go down to the well.”
“The problem is fixed, Mistress. The men are digging again.”
“Oh. So what did you do all morning?”
“It took that long to fix the problem, Mistress. It was a broken casing. Dirt was falling in on the diggers. Very counterproductive.”
“I see. Well…” She looked around in some frustration. “…I have no time to talk to you now. Come and see me after lunch.”
As the days went by, he discovered that it was quite easy to accomplish very little, and that most of the slaves were adept at it. If not directly supervised, or on a routine task with a measured outcome, they tended to wander, gossip, and work inefficiently. The carpenter shook his head at the waste.
Finally, after three days of inactivity, he took the chance and waylaid the Mistress in her daily routine.
“Mistress, I am ready to start the wall, now.”
She brightened. “Are you? That’s very good.”
“Yes, Mistress. All I need is the lumber.”
Her face regained its former frown. “The only place to buy wood of the quality I desire is at the woodcutters market in the Capital. Neither I nor the Overseer have time to take you there. I don’t know what to do.”
“I could not go myself, Mistress?”
Again the “slow child” look. “New slaves sometimes have ideas of escaping. You expect me to give you money and send you off with a wagon? Do I look stupid?”
“Mistress! I have never failed to complete a project in my life.”
“And how does this help me?”
“Once I start on this wall, I will finish it. That is more than a promise. It is my creed. I finish what I start.”
“Are you saying I should accept the word of a slave, that he will not try to escape?”
“It does sound rather irrational, when you put it that way.”
“Well, I can’t see the Overseer choosing this wood and bargaining for it. He’d get taken for sure.”
“Right. Leave it with me.”
“Yes, Mistress. Is there anything you want me to do in the meantime?”
She spun to face him, and he realized is mistake. “Can’t you see I’m busy? Find the Overseer, and have him put you in the fields.”
“Yes, Mistress.” He bowed deeply and disappeared as quickly as he could.
He deemed that an afternoon with a scythe was enough payment for his stupidity, and took steps to redeem himself.
The next day he made a great fuss about setting up his tools in the shed allotted to him. He took the morning to explore the manor, searching out whatever wood was available. He found that if he moved quickly, and seemed to be industrious, no one asked what he was doing.
At the end of the first day, he had a satisfactory pile of lumber, and by the end of the third, he had carved several quite decent florets to be used in the paneling. He felt he had accomplished enough to disturb the Mistress again. Careful this time to catch her when she looked less harried, he presented his work to her.
“These are beautiful. Where did you get them?”
She glanced at him, then looked again. “You made them yourself?”
“Of course, Mistress.”
She smiled. “It seems I have piqued your honor, Carpenter. They are very good work. I think you may be worth your excessive price after all. I look forward to the completion of my project.” She sat for a moment, juggling the two bits of wood back and forth. Finally she slapped them down on the table in front of her.
“All right. I will take the risk. Tomorrow, the teamsters will take the king’s measure of the harvest grain to the Capital. You will go with them in our big wagon. Once it is unloaded, you will continue to the wood market. I will send a promissory note; the merchants will accept that. If they won’t, buy from someone who will.”
“Yes, my Lady. I will bargain especially hard.”
She glanced at him. “Please call me ‘Mistress,’ Carpenter.”
“Yes, Mistress. I ap…”
“And stop apologizing. It doesn’t do any good, and I don’t believe you mean a word of it.”
“Whatever you say, Mistress.”
She glared at him, but he presented his “slave face”, and she could not take offence.
The trip to the Capital was uneventful but informative, and he returned in the early dusk, whistling merrily until he turned in across the bridge. He was pleased to note the Mistress waiting for him.
“What did you get, Carpenter?”
“All we need, Mistress. Excellent quality, I must say.”
“How much did it cost?”
“More than I hoped, less than I feared, Mistress.” He handed her the receipt.
She read it over. “What is this? Ebony?”
“I couldn’t resist, Mistress. It is a beautiful piece, and I thought we could run a strip of it across at hip height, and another half way up. It will give the wall a longer line. I’ve been worrying that it will look too stark and tall.”
She frowned, trying to visualize. “I think I know what you mean. It will certainly give a luxurious feel.”
“Exactly. I knew you would be pleased.”
“I haven’t said I am pleased, and I won’t until I see it finished.”
He sprang to the wagon bed and began to offload the planks. “It will be done before you know it, my Lady.”
She did not correct him, but he caught a smile as she turned away.
A few days later, they were looking over his plans. “If my Mistress would permit a question?”
“We speak of building and buying. Can you afford such expense?”
“Do you dare to question my business affairs? You tread on uncertain ground, Carpenter.”
“I merely wish to ascertain your situation, that I may serve you better, Mistress. I would not wish to overspend with too ostentatious a project. It also helps me, I find, to know more about my client, in order to better design her living space to suit her personal needs.”
“I see. Well, when my husband died some years ago, he left me comfortable. Not rich, but comfortable. However, there was a recent plot against the king. My son was involved; I am not sure how. He was killed in the aftermath; it was never certain on which side. Thus his Majesty has…ambiguous feelings towards me. He is much happier if I am here, within his reach, but not close enough to embroil myself in Capital politics.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Mistress.”
She regarded him. “I think you really meant that.”
He shrugged. “I lost a spouse recently. I, too, have been the subject of undeserved suspicion. I have no children, though, so I could not pretend to feel your more recent pain, my Lady.”
“No, you could not.”
He hurried on before she registered the slip. “I have some new ideas, but they may cost a bit more than I had at first thought.”
“Don’t completely overdo it. This manor is what sustains me, for the most part, and it takes a great deal of management to wrest that living from it.”
“Why so, Mistress? I would have expected such a well-run and fertile demesne would bring a comfortable income.”
“It does, but slaves cost money. To buy, clothe, train, and feed.”
“There do seem to be a lot of them …us, Mistress.”
“No more than usual. I do not expect you to understand how difficult it is to keep them working. They are like children, with no ideas of their own. They must be supervised and motivated at all times, and there are so many of them.”
“Your Overseer does keep busy.”
“He needs to be given his orders as well, and he only understands the whip. Running a manor involves so much more than that.”
“I suppose it does, Mistress.”
“There are different forms of slavery. I am as much a slave to this manor as you are.”
“So the system has its drawbacks.”
“You are critical of the ways of my people? You, a barbarian and a slave?”
“I prefer to think of it as analytical, Mistress.”
“You barbarians do not have slaves?”
“No, Mistress. All of us…barbarians are free men. Women, too.”
“How do you get anything done?”
“How do you mean, Mistress?”
“How can you agree on anything, if one man cannot tell another what to do, and have it done?”
“I don’t know, Mistress. It seems we muddle along, in our barbaric way.”
“Hmm. It seems your people have a long way to go before they become as civilized as mine.”
“We have much to learn, Mistress.”
“And what do your barbaric friends call you, Carpenter?”
“My friends call me Elaric, Mistress.”
“So Elaric is your name.”
“Not exactly, Mistress, but that is what I am usually called.”
Over the following weeks, he found several opportunities to leave the manor, always on business. The beauty of the richly-hued wall required new paneling on the opposite side of the room to match. Such a delightful room cried for better quality in carpets. The Mistress came with him to choose those, but she had other business in the Capital, leaving him to his own devices for several useful hours.
“Elaric, I find myself satisfied with this room.”
“Thank you, Mistress. It is your design. I merely furnished the details.”
“Of course. And now I find that the harvest was good enough to allow a bit more expenditure.”
“Very good, Mistress.”
“Come with me.”
She led the way up the stairs to the second floor. “The lord’s suite has not been used for years. I found it much too large and echoing. Perhaps we can make it more cosy.”
He stared around at the tattered, empty space. Stains ran down the stone beneath the windows, and matching darkness rose above the fireplace. He stamped a foot. “The floor seems solid enough Mistress.”
“But the rest of it?”
He shook his head. “I hope it was a very good harvest, Mistress.”
“Let’s make our plans as if it were, Elaric.”
“Very good, Mistress. I have my rule here already. Shall we start?”
Once the lady had moved her belongings into the main suite, there were her old rooms to be done, and they merrily spent the winter, the bulk of the harvest profits, and more on similar projects. Neighboring ladies became interested in Elaric’s talents, and he used these opportunities to his advantage, travelling father afield as the weather improved.
However, all good times come to an end. One fine spring morning Elaric was in the courtyard enjoying a particularly intricate piece of carving when a field hand came shouting through the orchard.
“Soldiers! Soldiers coming!”
Instant pandemonium. Women ran, screaming for their offspring. Men tore back and forth, picking up tools, discarding them as useless. The three old soldiers who formed the lady’s guard stood around uncertainly, finally rushing to close the gate, only to be pushed back by the field hands streaming in. Dogs barked, and somehow a dozen pigs burst from the sty, their shrill screams adding to the hubbub.
Lady Jana appeared in the doorway, a thundercloud visible about her. “I will have silence!”
The courtyard became a field of statues.
“Where are the soldiers, when will they get here, and why are you afraid of them?”
The man threw himself at her feet. “Barbarian soldiers mistress, hundreds of them! They’ll be here in minutes. They were just coming through the far pasture, and I saw them. Thousands, Mistress!”
“Is everyone inside?” A few laggard hands jogged in, and the surrounding fields were empty. “Close the gate and put both bars down. Shutter all the ground floor windows. Overseer, issue swords and spears to all able men.”
“…swords and sp…”
“Yes, give the men weapons, you idiot. If those barbarians get in here, they’ll kill most of us, and what they’ll do to the women, I don’t want to think. If we can make them believe we’re too tough a nut to crack, maybe they will look for easier pickings. Arm the men. Move!”
She stood there, head high, as the first horsemen emerged from the tree line. There were ten of them, fully armored, complete with standard bearers, trumpeters, and outriders. She was just beginning to relax when the footsoldiers appeared behind. Rank upon rank of them striding out in good order, heads up, the faint rattle of drums building as they approached. More and more appeared, until it seemed there would be no end of them.
Lady Jana’s shoulders began to sag.
When the riders reached the front gate, there was a staccato trumpet call, a change in the pattern of the drums, and the whole army stopped at once.
She turned to see Elaric the carpenter standing beside her.
“I fail to be impressed.”
“You should be. There are twelve hundred men out there, well-armed and well-drilled. I don’t think a few untrained slaves with cheap weapons are going to make them go looking for better pickings. This place is as easy as they come.”
“Nonetheless. We will fight.”
“No you won’t.”
He did not answer, merely nodded towards the rider who kneed his horse closer to the gate and raised his visor.
“Is this the manor of Lady Jana Grisveld?”
She frowned, glanced at the man standing next to her. “How does he know who I am?”
He shrugged. “I’m sure you’re about to find out.”
“Would you please open the gate?
“Hmph. At least he’s polite.”
“Well brought up, for a barbarian from Shakht. I suggest you do as he says.”
“Don’t be a fool.” He strode forward, motioning to the field hands who milled behind the barrier. Cowed by his air, they obeyed. As the gate swung open, the slaves recoiled in fear, but only the first rider entered. When he reached the old carpenter, he stopped his horse and saluted. “His Majesty’s Infantry present as ordered, my Lord Elaric.”
Elaric nodded. “Right on time, too. Any problems?”
“No, my Lord. We rolled over the border guards before they knew what hit them, and the route you gave us put us here without meeting any resistance at all. The cavalry have penetrated to their assigned positions. What’s wrong with these people? I thought they were the rulers of their world.”
“Overconfidence and disorganization, Lieutenant. They’ve pulled all their troops to the capital to contest for the throne. Left their country seats defenseless, as I told his Majesty they would.”
The officer shook his head slowly. “I don’t know how you did it, my Lord.”
“The wrong information in the right ear at the right time, usually. I’ve had a free hand for five months, after all.” He turned to survey the manor. “Bivouac the men in the orchard. Tell them not to touch the trees; there’s plenty of seasoned firewood in the second shed, over there. Officers inside. I’ll have the housekeeper show them where to drop their gear.”
“What are you doing?”
He looked down at her, as if suddenly remembering her presence.
“I am preparing my army for bivouac, my Lady. It seems you are to be our billet tonight. My quartermasters will supply the men, but the officers would appreciate a good meal. Please consult the cook. I was particularly taken by her roast suckling pig the other night. There will be eleven of us.”
He turned away, leaving her with her mouth open.
A brassy fanfare aroused the manor precisely at sunrise. With little fuss, the army was fed, packed, and moving down the road. The former carpenter gathered his meager belongings together, making sure that his toolbox was safely stowed in a baggage cart. Dressed now in shiny but well-used battle gear, he stood in the courtyard with his Lieutenant. A night of uncertain sleep had improved neither Lady Jana’s temper nor her understanding of the situation. She glared at him.
He stared her down. “Except for a few unpleasant moments, I have enjoyed my visit with you. Once my army has taken control of the area, I intend to return. I will be asking his Majesty for the use of this manor, including its people. That will include yourself.”
“But your people don’t use slaves! You told me.”
He tilted his head. “It is the pattern of history, is it not? The barbarian invaders take on the superior culture of the civilizations they overrun. I have claimed this manor as my booty, and you and all your people are now my slaves. Do you understand?”
“I believe you should call me ‘Master’ shouldn’t you?”
She drew herself up. “Never!”
“Take her out and flog her. The usual ten.”
His gaze returned to her. “You say that word a lot. This time, you’re going to get an answer.” He turned back to the Overseer. “Use the broad lash. I want her in good shape before evening.”
“But the screams will be loud enough.”
There were screams. Loud enough to hear that there was more cursing than screaming, and his name came through clearly more than once. But definitely loud enough.
When it was done, he gave her time to compose herself, then went into the slave yard. She hung in the stocks, hair disheveled, back naked and welted, her face slimy with snot and tears. When she became aware of his regard she straightened, but kept her head low.
The slave was there instantly.
“Take her in and clean her up, salve her back.”
“Yes Master. Where should I take her? To the women’s quarters?”
“Her old rooms will do for now.” He strode closer. “Slave. Look at me.”
The former lady’s head came up, naked hate in her eyes.
“I have no time to deal with the troubles of this small place. I have a war to run. The Overseer will be in charge until I return, but he doesn’t have the brains without help from you. I will leave a squad of soldiers to protect you. Keep them in line, and they will not offend anyone. My people do not act that way. Any questions?”
“That’s ‘No, Master.’ ”
He spun on his heel, nodded to his Lieutenant, and strode to his mount.
A week later the horse limped back through the manor gate, crusted wounds decorating its legs and sides. The rider was in similar shape: his armour hard-used, a bandage covering his head, dented helmet at his saddle bow. He was escorted by a similarly battered troop of soldiers, horse and foot.
The slaves all turned out in their ranks, the former Lady at their head.
“Is all well, Jana?”
“Your men acted very correctly.”
“Don’t sound so surprised.” He raised his voice. “My troops will use the orchard again. Our stores are depleted, so we are depending on the manor for supply. There are wounded, and you will need to expand the infirmary.” He waved a weary hand. “Have it done.”
Her head came up, and she began to give orders, to slaves and soldiers alike. He hid a weary grin as he entered the house. “Milly, I could use a massage and a hot bath.”
The girl smiled. “Immediately, Master.”
Slave or no, her strong fingers brought pain to his aching muscles, but soon the hot water was soothing him. He smiled up as the girl brought him a cool drink.
“Milly, how is your former mistress?”
“Fully recovered in body, Master.”
“And in mind?”
“She is not happy, Master.”
“I hardly expected she would be.” He waved her to a seat. “Tell me, Milly, was Lady Jana a good mistress?”
“Of course…I mean…” She looked up at him with a quick, frightened glance. “I don’t know, Master. I never had another mistress.”
“And you have always been a slave.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Have any of the others taken advantage of her new position?”
“What do you mean, Master?”
“She was Mistress over them, now she is a slave, like them. Anyone taking revenge?”
“Oh, no, Master, They wouldn’t.”
“Why not? She’s just a slave.”
A small twitch to the corner of the girl’s mouth. “They wouldn’t dare, Master.”
He nodded. “The quality of the slaves reflects well on their mistress. Thank you, Milly. You may return to your duties.”
“But I have no duties, Master.”
“Yes you do. See to Lady Jana as you always have.”
The girl’s brow furrowed, but she was a good slave. “Yes, Master.”
Dinner that evening was pleasant. Sequestered as they had been, the manor folk had no word of the invasion, and the younger officers were not loath to describe their exploits. It was in the middle of a particularly graphic description of battle that Lord Elaric raised his hand. “Please keep in mind, Lieutenant, that the enemy you are dispatching so gruesomely may be friends or even relatives of your audience.”
“I’m sorry, my Lady.”
She tossed his apology aside. “It seems we have been lucky, here. There wasn’t much resistance, I gather?”
“Yes. Your soldiers were quite adept at searching wagons and catching smugglers, not so good in a stand-up battle.”
“So your the king of Shakht now rules Draza?”
“He will place a governing council in your former capital. I will be at its head.”
He grinned. “Yes, my Lady. A reward for my success in the conduct of the invasion.”
“You led the invasion?”
“By a good five months. Your soldiers were, indeed, very good at arresting our agents. Another approach was needed.”
“But that was a horrible risk. You were…I had you flogged!”
“My Lady, at my age, pain is a relative term. If I get a bout of my back spasms, just getting out of bed in the morning is almost as painful as that flogging. And it’s not quite so acceptable to scream.”
“Why are you calling me ‘my Lady’? I am only a slave.”
“Sorry. The habit of thirty years. I’ll stop if you like.”
“It would be more honest.”
“I suppose it would.” He stretched slowly. “I will sleep now. It has been an intense campaign.”
“Milly will see to you.”
“Milly.” He rested a hand on the girl’s arm, looked over at her former mistress. “Is Milly a good slave?”
“The best. I trained her from a child.”
“Ah. A pity.” He staggered as he rose. Milly put a hand under his arm, but he motioned her off. “It just takes a few steps to get the kinks out.” He made a decent job of striding to the door, then turned back to Jana. “I will address the people of the manor after breakfast tomorrow. All of them.”
He grinned at that, nodded, and turned away.
He stood at the front door, surveying the slaves. Field hands in rows on the ground, house staff in their proper ranks along the steps.
“All my…your people are present, Master.’’
He nodded to her in thanks, then turned to address them.
“I’m sure you are all wondering what is going to happen, now that the barbarians have overrun your realm. I’m also sure that many of you think that the life of a slave does not change much, no matter who his master is. I am about to prove you very wrong.”
He ignored the questioning looks. “Truly, the life of a slave would not change. But my people do not use slaves. You will all be set free.”
He paused to let that sink in.
“You are all, as of this moment, free. You may go where you want, at any time. You may leave this manor. You are freemen and women.”
“Mas…my Lord. Will you provide them with papers? To prove that they are freed?”
“Why? As of today, slaves do not exist in this realm. A free man in a free realm needs no papers.”
He turned back to the assembly, where the strict ranks were dissolving. “I do have some advice for you.”
The murmur subsided, and the former slaves began to sidle back to their places, as if they knew that nothing would really change.
“I suggest that you do not leave this manor. The aftermath of war is uncertainty. Deserters, fugitives, and everyday robbers roam the land. Even perhaps slavers who have not got the message. You have no resources, no means of sustenance, no protection; most of you have nowhere to go.”
Once again, he gave them time to think.
“As a slave, were fed, clothed, and occupied, and all decisions were made for you. Now that you are free, none of that is certain. If you wish food, you have to work for it. No work, no food. If you need clothing, you have to pay for it. No work, no pay.”
He could see the consternation growing on their faces, as the reality of their predicament set in. “You are free to go; you are also free to stay. For the time being, Lady Jana is in charge. It will be up to her, but until you are told otherwise, stay at your former duties, to keep the manor running smoothly.”
“Only one of you will be leaving.” He regarded the Overseer, vainly trying to conceal his whip behind his back. “We have no need for a slavemaster, no need of whips. You will receive a month’s wages. Leave as soon as possible, for your own safety. Take your whips with you.”
“They aren’t mine, Ma…my Lord.”
“Leave them, and they will be burnt.”
He turned to the crowd, no longer in their strict ranks. “As your new Lord, I declare today a feast day. Everyone knows his responsibilities. Perform them as you always have, and make this day joyful.” He nodded towards the Overseer, slipping warily past the throng, one shoulder to the wall. “Remember, you are free to go, but I am also free to send you away, should you not fulfill your duties.”
He turned, offering his arm to Lady Jana. “My Lady, will you accompany me inside? We have things to discuss.”
She accepted, although her eyes slid towards him, brow raised. He merely gestured towards their private alcove. He sat in her favorite chair and motioned her to take a seat as well.
“I am no longer a slave?”
“You heard what I said.” He sat back, regarding the room with pride.
‘”And you will be staying?”
“Yes. The King will be more comfortable with me out of his hair. Likes to do things his own way, does His Majesty, and he doesn’t really want Uncle Elaric leaning over his shoulder. Especially Uncle Elaric the successful general. Kings are funny that way, don’t you find?”
“And Elaric the Carpenter?”
“A lifelong hobby.”
“But you will be staying here, at Grisveld Manor?”
“As much as I can. We are a comfortable distance from the capital, here, as I’m sure you are aware.”
“I do not intend to stay on the Council for too many years. I will retire to an advisory position, and I find this manor a very comfortable place.” He grinned. “Especially since I have some time invested in its décor. I must congratulate you on your management. It is a fine setting, beautifully maintained. You have done well, considering.”
“I have always done my best.”
“Which brings us to the next question. Your future.”
“Yes. I have been thinking of that.” She mused a moment, then glanced up at him. “What is happening to the other Drazian nobles?”
He shrugged. “Some are dead. Your people are not without their heroes. Some of the less brave made their peace early, and have retained their positions.”
“The more practical. You, however, are in a more delicate position.”
“It is no secret that the barbarian general spent the winter as a slave in your household. Many of your people consider you either a traitor or a fool.”
“An unpleasant choice, but I must aim for fool.”
“I would like to think not, my Lady. How could you have known?”
“Hah! There were hints from the first, had I been bright enough to notice.”
“It was a new situation for me.”
“I should have caught the ‘my lady’ business. You made that slip too many times.”
He shrugged. “The habit of thirty years.”
“Yes. She died three years ago. Another reason I am staying here. We had no children, and my life in Shakht was empty. Probably why I was willing to try this inane stunt.”
“Inane but very successful.”
“But we were talking of your future. You have nowhere to go.”
“Nowhere as pleasant as…as this.” She gazed around the room a moment, the room they had decorated so carefully together. He could see her composure begin to waver.
“Then I have a proposal for you.”
“Yes. Why don’t you stay here?”
“I couldn’t do that. I have no position here. People would talk.”
“Not if you were married.”
“To me, of course. I’m alone, you’re alone, my king would be happy to see me settled with a woman who is past child-bearing age.”
“But how…I mean…” Her hands fluttered. “I had you flogged!”
“And I had you flogged. Marriages among my people are considered to be equal partnerships. Problem solved.”
“You had this all planned!”
“I was considering. It was a pleasant winter, for the most part. Best I’ve had in years.”
That brought a smile. “For me, as well.”
“From one slavery to the next.”
“So it seems.”
She looked around. “The main hall does not match up to my…our alcove.”
He rose and stood at the entrance. “That’s going to take a whole lot of ebony.”
She tucked herself under his arm. “The new Master will have to find a way to afford it.”