Sample Chapter: "Noko the House Slave" Pax Humana, Book Two
Noko the house slave walked quickly along the wet slimy floors of the cellar, carrying a woven reed basket spilling over with fruit picked from the trees of this desert estate weeks ago, held safe against the heat down in the cold stones near the dark dripping cisterns.
Noko was eight years old, looked about fourteen in human years, was in the height of the prosien male puberty cycle. He was a strong boy, used to hauling up buckets of water from wells, wrangling animals larger than himself, moving furniture on his master’s whim. He had a vague memory of Klek’tan and a mother, and being forced onto a ship. Then it was a blur of days in his master’s house, which he counted by the scars he had received for his punishments.
He steadied the basket with both hands as he walked up the ramp from the basement to the daylight in the house.
He went immediately upstairs, to the third floor parlor, where Mistress Coletta was entertaining some of the lords’ wives from the nearby estates. He had already been up there twice with sweet wine and honey ale, and the ladies were well into it, perfumed and dressed up and squawking like birds. He entered without knocking and set the basket down, served a few portions onto some dishes, and waited for further instruction. None was forthcoming; Noko was invisible until needed. He drifted over to the window, looked out over the grounds. The morning sun was coming up over the fields. Long strips of green shoots ran from horizon to horizon, with the beginning of the irrigation ditches just visible beyond. Gardens for food and others for pleasure bounded the house, with statued nooks and subtle fortifications forming the geometry of the lawns. This parlor faced the main gate, with the courtyard opening onto the front door.
“You there. Slave boy.” Noko snapped out of his reverie, spun around to face Coletta. “Yes, Mistress?” She pointed at the basket of fruit. His eyes widened as he saw that it had tipped over a little, spilling a few pieces onto the floor. “Oh–I’m sorry, Mistress.” He righted the basket, began picking up the fruit. Coletta looked on, amused, like watching a monkey play a musical instrument. “Oh, no, boy,” she said, bearing down on him with a gaze of withering derision. “Do you think I would serve food to my friends that had touched the floor?” Noko took out the tainted pieces, held them awkwardly, not sure what to do with them. “I will dispose of these, Mistress.” He began to smile, thinking he had done right. She shook her head. “Do you think we are so rich that we can just waste food?” His smile died. “No–no, Mistress.” Coletta turned to her friends as if to say, can you believe this idiot? She turned back to Noko. “You will need a whipping,” she said, a cruel grin tugging at the corner of her mouth. “To remember this lesson. Kallay!” Noko cringed. Kallay Helnr was the estate slave master. He kept the household in line with a small whip he carried on his belt. Noko tried to still his quivering body as the sound of the man’s footsteps grew louder on the stairs. Then he appeared, filling the doorway, fat and sweaty in his leather gear. His huge ugly face was slack, pig eyes bereft of emotion, an expression he kept even when administering brutal punishments. The whip dangled at his belt. Noko stared at it, remembering its bite.
“Five lashes.” Coletta’s voice had taken on that tone of entitled command. She glanced left and right for approval from her friends, received it. She was being so kind, so merciful, they cooed. Kallay grunted a nod, his fat moving forward. He grabbed Noko’s tunic in both fists and ripped it open, exposing his back. He shoved the boy up against a wall and raised the whip. Noko closed his eyes and bit his lip. The lashes started. One. Noko flinched away reflexively, but held himself in place. Two. Tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes. He heard the ladies chatting behind him. Three. It hurt so bad he had to cry out, knew they would not be satisfied if he didn’t. Four. It was almost over, but his breath was coming out in rapid pained whines now. Five. He collapsed against the wall, was dragged up and held for inspection. Coletta appeared to casually notice, nodded. Kallay released him and left the room. Noko forced himself to stand on shaking knees.
“So,” Coletta said, cordially. “What is the lesson?”
Noko snuffled it out. “Don’t spill fruit.”
Coletta’s eyelids lowered a bit, but she let it go. “On your way.” She turned back to her gossip and Noko walked out as quietly as he could.
The kitchen stretched out into a garden, and around the corner through the bushes of herbs was a little nook where the girls did their sewing. Noko was on his way there now, hoping to get his tunic repaired. His wounds were raw and burning and he could feel blood dripping down his back. Best not to get it in the house. He moved through the sweet smelling leaves past low windows and came to a small wooden porch. Its door was open. He went in, looked in the cozy rooms with petite upholstered couches and shelves of exotic cloth until he found a sewing station. He pilfered needle and thread and went back out, took off his tunic, sat on the top porch step. The needle was too small and the thread was too big and it was really giving him trouble when a noise from behind him made him freeze up. He turned to see a slave girl standing there holding her hand over her mouth. She was about his age, was clearly from Rnirok or Murda, her skin so white it gleamed in the midmorning sunlight. Her delicate features were delineated sharply by the flatness of her face which rounded back to her short yellow hair. She relaxed as she saw what was going on. “Your back.” Her hand reached out, withdrew.
“It’s nothing.” Noko’s grim face belied his pain. “It’s my tunic that needs fixing.” He held it up. “Can you–”
“I’ll fix your back first.” The girl went into the house, returned with a dish of water and a cloth. She set them on the porch, hopped down and ducked into the dense garden foliage. Noko sat watching little tremors pop up here and there as she plucked something. She reappeared out of the leaves with a handful of herbs. “Hold these,” she ordered, and Noko took the bunch of greens in his hands, raised them to his nose and breathed in their mixture of scents, then tried to stay tough as she washed his back with the cloth. When it was done she crushed the herbs together in the bloody water and applied it to thin cuts. The wounds started to tingle, then slowly numbed. His breathing slowed subconsciously.
“Thank you.” They looked at each other for a moment, slave boy and slave girl in this human household. Finally her eyes dropped to her lap, hands plucking nervously at her skirt. Noko desperately tried to think of something to say.
“Is your name…Niri?” The girl looked up, delighted to be recognized. “Yes. And your name is Noko.” She smiled shyly.
“That’s right. How do you know that?”
Niri giggled. “Everyone knows Noko. He goes from the house to the fields, he serves wine, tends fires, hangs tapestries…Noko is always underfoot, that’s what the women say.”
“Is that what they say?” Noko was laughing now too. “I’m always underfoot? Like a little squeaking kweeco?” He made his hand into a hopping rodent and Niri broke into peals of fresh laughter. Noko had forgotten about his beating.
“Here.” She knelt down beside Noko and took the sewing materials from him. Deftly she threaded the needle, then assessed the damage to his tunic. “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” she said, and set to work. In a few minutes his tunic was whole again. He stood and put it on. Niri’s eyes lingered over his torso.
“I have to get back to work,” he said, showing his reluctance. She nodded, understanding. He stepped forward; she did not retreat. “Thank you, Niri.” Their gazes clung together, then broke as he turned to go.
As soon as he made an appearance in the house again, he had been ordered out to the fields, as punishment for his earlier behavior. Noko was secretly pleased; he like field work, it gave him some time alone to think his own thoughts and daydream. He collected a basket of manure from the stables and headed out.
His job was simple. He had to scoop a little bit of manure out of the basket in the cup of his hand, arrange it in a circle around the sprout, and pat it down into the ground. Kill any bugs he found. It was a mindless task, and as he approached the last row on one field his basket was almost empty and the sun was beating down from directly overhead. The sweat from his labors made his dark black skin glossy. It ran into his cuts, stinging a little.
Noko knelt, knees in the dirt, watching a segmented worm with dry white skin pushing itself over the rich black geshian soil. He nodded for a moment, dozing in the noonday sun. Jerking himself out of his daydreams, he continued with his work. He squished the worm between his thumb and forefinger, placed the manure, patted it down. Then he moved on to the next sprout.
He stopped. This sprout was broken; its stalks were torn up and its roots were exposed. He frowned. If he was blamed for this, he would get a beating. He looked at the next one. It was the same; stripped of its tender shoots and displanted. His mouth fell open. ‘No, no,’ he thought frantically. His eyes followed the row of sprouts and came upon a set of footprints. Prosien footprints, curved with a tight group of four toes. Small, but larger than his. An adult.
Noko was standing, the basket forgotten. He followed the prints back down the row of ruined sprouts. They led away out of the field to an irrigation ditch, its water causing patches of waist-high grass and a few small trees to grow here and there along its run. He froze at a shallow depression. There, half hidden amongst the grass, was a person.
A man, laying on his side, not moving. Small flying insects buzzed about his body, and a sickly smell rose from him, like spoiled meat. Noko crept forward warily, wrinkling his nose at the scent, and saw that the man had a long gash in his stomach, a nasty wound that oozed blood and viscera. White froth and muddy water from the ditch were caked around his mouth.
“Help.” Noko jumped back a step, nearly turned and fled. The man had opened his eyes, was looking not at but through Noko. He blinked once, slowly. His pupils looked dried out and only half alive. Noko stared at the man. He was acutely aware of the noise of the insects and the dust motes drifting in the sunlight. He opened his mouth to speak, but had no idea what to say. The man lifted an arm, feebly, stretching out his hand toward Noko. “Help me.”
“I–I can’t,” he said, feeling sick and ashamed . “I’m sorry…” He turned around, returned to his work, finishing as quickly as he could, though he knew the last few plots were sloppy. The whole time he felt the presence of the man, just over there, imagined he could hear his horrible breathing. His daydreaming had become a waking nightmare. He was mindful enough to scratch out the other footprints as best he could before leaving, eyes fixed resolutely upon the ground as he came closer to the ditch. He was halfway back and had not decided yet what to do about the man in the field, when a commotion started from away down the road. Riders approaching. One in the lead, galloping hard, with a prosien man running behind, his wrists tied to the saddle. He was just barely keeping up. A group of others moving slower, the master’s hunting party. They were sent out from time to time when Master Kreg felt like defying the order against eating meat. It appeared that they had found a better prize today.
As he watched the figure tripped and fell and was pulled haphazardly down the road, his arms and face scoured by bits of gravel and clumps of turf. The rider didn’t even notice, dragging the man all the way through the house gate. The rest of the hunting party passed by, and one of them called out. “You! Boy!” An arm was extended and Noko realized he was being addressed. “Come with us!” Noko dropped the basket and ran after them.
The courtyard was a mess of activity; the riders coming in, workers recoiling from the dust, disturbed animals running willy-nilly. The slaves retreated into the house, but after a moment Master Kreg came out, looking agitated and anxious. He was an old fighter who had kept all but a streak of his red hair, and most of his muscles.
“We caught one!” One of the hunters stepped forward, pointing at the groaning native. Kreg smiled at him. “Good work.” The man beamed. He turned to Noko. “Take him downstairs.”
The house of Master Kreg didn’t have a dungeon, just a dark little room sometimes used to torture people. An iron hook had been driven into the timbers of the ceiling, and the runaway slave now hung from this by the rope on his wrists, his feet barely touching the ground. He had been stripped of his clothes and the dirty abrasions from his dragging were visible. The master was there, sitting back on a shelf that was meant for prosien hands. Kallay stood breathing down his neck.
Noko had been forgotten, a mute witness to the scene. He watched Kallay set his torch in a wall sconce, then take out his knife and heat its blade in the flame. When it was glowing red he held it up and waited.
“Where are the others.” The master spoke so calmly, it wasn’t even a question.
“I don’t know.” The runaway’s voice trembled. Kallay sliced a hunk of flesh off of the man’s right arm. He screamed, the sound deadening off the stone walls. Blood sizzled as the knife went along, but the wound burned itself closed behind the blade. The man went slack for a moment, panting with the exertion of his agony. The master spoke again.
“Where are the others.” He waited for a long moment with no answer. Kallay punched the slave hard in the side, just below his ribcage. All the air left his lungs and his body spasmed for awhile as he gasped his way back to breathing.
The questioning went on. The slave quickly got the rules of the game, a punch to talk and the knife for the truth. By the end of it he was less a person than the parts that held one together, and when he had got what he wanted the master ordered Kallay to castrate him. This was done with one practiced motion, the red hot knife stopping most of the blood flow.
Clean this up.” The master was talking to him. “Take the body to the pens.” He and Kallay left him alone in the room with this monster. Pieces of ragged meat were strewn about the floor. Noko found a basket in a corner and began picking them up, trying to search them out with his eyes closed, pretending they were pieces of fruit. The warmth and stickiness of the blood made this impossible. Above him, the man gagged and flopped, gurgling blood for breath.
Noko stood up. All he had to do was drag this man upstairs, and drop him into the pens. The gul would take care of the rest. The master would expect to hear his last screams. He looked up at the man. “I’m–sorry–this happened to you.”
The man’s voice was a hideous croak. “Don’t be sorry, boy. Do something. Help me.”
Noko thought about the runaway he had seen in the fields. 'Help me.' He had run away, left him there to die, or be captured like this one. A sudden compulsion came over him. “I will. I will help you. I will free you, get you out of here–”
“No!” The man had found some energy, coughing out a word. “How am I supposed to live like this?” He looked down at his mutilated body. “Kill me. If you want to help me, kill me. Please. Don’t feed me to the animals alive.” He implored Noko with his eyes. Noko nodded. He could tell Kallay that the captive had died after they left; he would believe that. The slave was moments away from death anyway; best to end his suffering now. Noko got a stool and climbed up. He looked the man in the eyes, realized they had never asked him his name, so he didn’t know it himself. He grasped the man’s mouth with one hand, pinched his nostrils tightly with the other. The slave’s body convulsed as his brain fought reflexively against its death, but the resistance declined until only a misshapen carcass hung from the hook. Noko sat on the stool and cried for a moment. Then he climbed up again, heaved the body down, and dragged it up the stairs.
The shadows in the stables were the only spectators to the gathering of slaves. Eight men and older boys chosen carefully by Noko, the only male members of the household he knew he could trust. It was an illegal gathering, and they all could have been killed just for showing up, but he had to tell somebody what he had heard in the basement. Kallay had apprehended him on the way to the pens and told him that now Master Kreg wanted the prisoner alive, to display to the others as a lesson. Noko had to tell him that the prisoner was already dead. Kallay glowered at him suspiciously, but left it.
Night in the desert was cold. A nervous wind kicked around, invoking the pensiveness of the crowd. They jerked wary glances over their shoulders, sidling and scuffing the ground like the animals in the stalls. They spoke in whispers.
“There has been a slave revolt,” Noko began, looking around to see the reactions of the others. Some were shocked and interested; others had only come to hear news of the outside world. “It started up north but is ravaging the country to the east of us, headed south. The captive today was a runaway who joined them from one of the cities they plundered. He was part of a band that broke off on its own, but ended up fighting amongst themselves and killing each other.” Noko was not ready to tell them about the man he had found in the field. It was irrelevant, he told himself, and it still weighed heavily on his conscience. “But the main army is coming this way. Tens of thousands strong, made up of slaves taken from cities and farms and estates such as ours halfway across Capothiga. They are killing the slaves who protect their masters. When they get here they will do the same to us. We must kill the master. Now, before the slave army gets here. To protect our own lives.” Noko saw what he expected on the faces of the men; anger, whether or not they agreed. This boy had no right to lead them into a conversation that would get them skinned alive if overheard. But the anger faded from a few of them as they accepted the terrible reasoning.
One of them spoke up. “What, we are supposed to just believe in a whole army because one runaway was caught? Where are the others, the ones he came with?” It was Armah, the canting old carriage driver. Others turned their heads, agreeing with him; some out of habit, some merely wanting to get out of there. The huddled clutch of fearful slaves was about to break and go. Noko knew this was his last chance to convince them.
“I saw a man.” They all turned to look at him. “In the fields.”
“What man.” Armah was stepping forward to confront him, but stopped as he put it together in his head. Noko had been punished for spilling fruit and given field work for the day. “What man.” Armah and the others were beginning to huddle around him now. “What man did you see, Noko? Another runaway? And you told no one?” They stared at him as if he were on fire. “Why not?” He felt the press of their accusing stares.
“I don’t know, I…felt sorry for him. He was just laying there, with a big wound in his stomach, dying. He’d eaten some crops and was drinking at the irrigation ditch at the southeastern corner of the pon field. He asked me for help. I…” Noko choked silently for a breath, the others peering at him intently. They saw his shame, and gaped at it like a show. “I said no, and finished my work. I was going to…I don’t know what I would have done. But then the hunting party came back with the captive and I was ordered to attend the master in the torture room and I heard that man’s confession. I heard the truth.” Noko was trying to whisper urgently. “There is an army coming, and if we fight for our masters, then we are going to die. They will treat us worse than the humans for doing that.”
Armah contemplated Noko for a moment. Finally it was the boy’s shame that persuaded him. He nodded aside to the group. “One of you. Go look for the body. And if he’s not dead, bring him back alive.” He turned back to Noko. “If what you say is true, if that man in the fields is real, and not some daydream you had, then I believe you about the other things. I know my master. I have been here a long time, and I have seen runaways and fugitives he’s caught and questioned. I have been that boy in the room.” They shared a brief look of horror. How long do we have?”
“Then we must act right away. Tomorrow night. We will plan something throughout the day. Agreed?” He faced them all, made them say it. Each man Noko had called agreed to the plan; the last was already gone, looking for the body. Spontaneously, the group split apart, each going a different direction. Silently they melted back into the house. Noko was last, pushing with his head down through the rising wind.
The next morning Master Kreg called for an assembly of all the household slaves in the courtyard. They lined up against the walls, elderly valets and kitchen girls and muscular washer women and prosien men in the prime of their lives. Kallay was there, with his whip.
Master stood in the middle of the courtyard, waiting for them all to settle into place. He was dressed warmly against the cold morning breeze, small furs and layers of soft leather. There was a tense moment of silence as he eyed each one of them individually, counting them off in his head and assessing their soul, it seemed. Then he addressed the assembly, his rich nobleman’s voice filling the space between the walls.
“As some of you may know,” he began, pacing a bit with his hands behind his back, “we caught a runaway slave outside the grounds yesterday. The slave belonged to no family in the Pocta sub-province. He died in custody before he was able to speak for himself. “ Kallay’s eyes shot hard at Noko, stayed there.
“Some of you may have heard rumors,” he paused in his stride and looked at them all again, “about a slave revolt. Well here is a lesson for anyone thinking subversive thoughts. I had intended to have the offender himself demonstrate this, but, well…” Here his eyes lingered on Noko, and the boy felt the intense guilt of this all being his fault. Kreg nodded to Kallay. “Five for the men, two for the girls.” Kallay stepped forward and began whipping the members of the household one at a time, with the same methodical boredom, regardless of whether they were an old man or a child. When he came to Niri, Noko broke from the wall and ran toward her, but by the time he got to them the two lashes were over with and she was snuffling away back into line.
“Give him another five lashes for that!” Kreg shouted as Kallay socked and wrestled Noko into submission. Twenty minutes later it was over. Kreg stood smiling, serene and confident as his point was made. “Back to work.” They gathered into clusters and departed. “Remember!” He called after them. “Any slave who refuses to fight for their household is a criminal worse than a runaway.”
Noko found Niri where he had met her, at the little porch behind the garden. Along the way he sought out by scent the herbs she had used to make his wounds feel better the day before. She was sitting alone on the top step, crying. Noko approached her slowly, and she stopped when she saw him. He held out the herbs.
“Are these the right ones?”
Niri nodded. She got up and went into the house, brought back a dish of water and a cloth, and allowed Noko to apply the soporific to the ugly red cuts on her delicate flesh. She trembled the whole time, hands clenched into her lap. When he was done Noko sat beside her.
“He whipped me.” Niri was close to sobbing again. There was a lost forlorn look in her eyes. “I didn’t do anything.” Noko sat down next to her and took her hand. She let him, looking up into his eyes. “Niri, I promise you.” He squeezed her hand a little. “After tonight, no whip will ever again touch your beautiful skin.”
The wind had decided to stay, and make its presence known. Shutters were being bolted around the outside of the house; inner doors were shut and the house was deathly quiet despite the howling outside. Footsteps creaked and echoed from the wood floors. One of the house slaves, coming downstairs. More footsteps approaching down a hallway. Noko, meeting the man, and they nod together. All is safe out back, and the master and mistress are asleep upstairs. They move together out the front door.
They are met in the stables by the original conspirators, plus several strong men selected from the members of the household that had been recruited into the plan. They walked through the filthy mud past the pens with their heads down, hooded, carrying copper trowels and heavy sections of brass pump piping and all manner of makeshift weapons. Kallay lived in his own hut built into a section of the perimeter wall that curved in close to the house. It was visible past the trees and shrubbery, a three-story stone dwelling that sprouted from the wall like a mushroom. The first two levels were lit up, bright candlelight filling the open windows. The third was dark, and the men knew that this was Kallay’s bed chamber. The lower floor was the kitchen, and the second a living area with a fireplace. A little clay chimney poked out of the wall there, issuing a thin plume of smoke that looked white against the black sky. A dark shape moved to and fro, silhouetted against the light of those windows. Noko stopped amidst his fellows in the murderous mob, exchanged glances as they acknowledged that the man they had come to kill was awake. Then without a word they started walking toward the hut again, hands tightening their grips on their weapons.
Kallay was awake past midnight again, driven out of his dreams by recurring violent nightmares. He paced back and forth in his living room, naked under a heavy robe, seeking random remedies and distractions. He reached down and grabbed a cup from the low table between the couches, took a drink from the opiated wine and set it on the mantle as he stirred the fire with an iron poker. With four lumbering steps he crossed the room to the wooden stand by the door that held a jumbled collection of narcotic powders and opioid oils in tiny bottles, herbal drugs and the paraphernalia used to smoke them, powdered fungus capsules formed with honey, and other strange substances he used to soothe his troubled conscience. He snuffed some powder, shuddered under its impact, then moved away, staggering a bit. A plate of food was his next clumsy target, forgotten on a dining table set under an arch of the roof, and he took a passing bite of a cold ipen leg, ignoring the vegetables prepared around it. Meat was one of his privileges. The master wanted him to eat like an animal, like a predator. Chewing, he retrieved his wine cup from above the mantle and drank again, the wine warm from being close to the fire. He was casting about for a new pastime when the door opened. He looked up, and saw a slave standing there. He could see more behind that one on the stairway. Kallay and the slave in the doorway stood staring at each other for what seemed like a long moment. A great bellow split the silence, Kallay’s face engorged with rage, and they charged at each other. Others followed the slave into the room.
Noko was third in line going up the steps. The entire hut was made of stone, and walls and stairways deadened footsteps and echoes. The first prosien in line reached the door, then looked back, waiting for a few more to gather behind him. He opened the door. He blinked for a split second, then lunged into the room. Kallay started screaming like a monster disturbed in its cave and the man ahead of Noko ran in behind him and Noko followed him into the room, and was immediately thrown into the fight. The first two men were whacking at Kally with their weapons. Noko felt the others coming in and gathering up behind him. Kallay roared and picked up the first prosien and threw him across the room. His body slammed into a wall and dropped straight down to lie still on the floor. Kallay roared again and swatted away a weapon. Noko ran and lept straight at him, driving the huge human back a step with the force of his weight, hoping others would follow behind. They did. The slaves swarmed over him, holding down his arms, tripping up his legs. He stumbled back and crashed into the fireplace, his back pressed against the mantle. His robe kept softening the blows but it fell open in front, exposing the man’s deformed genitals. He wrenched an arm up and began hitting the prosien on his left side, punching straight down onto their heads. Then the hand scrabbled for the poker leaned against the wall. Noko saw what he was going for and went for it just as Kallay’s fist closed around its handle. He grasped the shaft of the poker in both hands and, as Kallay raised it for a strike, dropped his whole weight dead around his wrists. The iron bar was torn from Kallay’s grasp, and Noko darted in and jabbed him in the crook of his knee with its pointed tip. The first blood appeared among the bruises, the first sign that they might actually kill him. Kallay slapped down another prosien with his free hand, was subdued again; Noko aimed a strike and stabbed Kallay under his left armpit. He howled and jerked his arm away. The prosien swarm was hurting itself, madly flailing as it pummeled him first to his knees, then to a push-ups position where he struggled mightily to raise himself under a dozen bodies, then in a final outburst of violence flat on his back, pinned down, seething.
Noko walked up onto his heaving chest, stepping on the tangled wrists and arms of those who held him down. He hit Kallay in the face with the poker, breaking his nose. He hit him again, and one of his eyes suffered irreparable damage. Again and again, Noko struck with the iron rod. It took a long time before the awareness went out in the man’s eyes, and Noko could feel his hate clinging onto him until the last stroke. He dropped the poker onto the man’s blood spattered chest and stepped down as the others disentangled themselves from the grappling pile. He went to the window and looked across the grounds to the house. Upstairs, a light had come on.
Kreg and Coletta’s bed chamber was designed to keep them physically separated, rather than help them sleep together. Individual beds were curtained off, hers with silk, his with heavier fabric like a tent. Each side of the spacious room was equipped with its own personal dressing and living station, hers with makeup and mirrors, his a work desk busy with map cases and trade treaties. She snored lightly in a nightgown under thin covers, facing the open windows, which let in cooler breezes at this elevation. He lay flat on his back, having just fallen asleep a few hours before, thinking worried thoughts about business and his wife’s latest expensive hobby and the damn slave revolt. Torture always tells the truth. That captive slave did not lie.
A sound woke him from his restless slumber. Something dangerous, like an animal ravaging inside the grounds. He waited for a heartbeat, to make sure he hadn’t dreamt it. Another beat. Another scream, then another and another. He sat bolt upright, suddenly wide awake, swung himself out of bed and lit a candle. Coletta was still snoring away, oblivious to the world. The screams were coming from Kallay’s hut, obviously from the man himself. Kreg sat frozen in the dark room, listening intently to the sounds of the distant rampage. This was it; it was happening. The slaves were attacking the house. He thought of his weapons locked in the armory downstairs. No telling if he’d be able to get to them. He searched to arm himself from the objects placed around his desk. There was a copper letter opener, a small slender blade ornate with decoration, sheathed in a neat wooden tripod stand. The crystal globe, perhaps, heavy, fist-sized, to smash in prosien skulls. His walking stick, leaning against a dresser, a smooth, solid branch oiled over the long years into a mass greater than its making. All of them seemed equally preposterous.
Noises came in through the open windows, making Kreg’s ears prick up, rustlings and scratches moving through the yard. He went out into the hallway, carrying the candle. A pair of eyes gleamed out from the shadows. A boy, black as night. Holding something glinting in his hand. The shadow rushed toward him. “Stop!” He yelled, as commanding as he could muster. The shadow boy didn’t stop, instead ran and jumped for his head. The glint in his hand flashed and stings started pecking at Kreg’s face and eyes and throat. He tried to block the stings but his hands kept getting lacerated and jerking back reflexively, the boy wrapping his legs around Kreg’s torso, a fistful of hair in one hand, a knife taken from Kallay’s hut in the other. The momentum of his leap carried them both over in a crashing heap, Kreg on his back, the boy on top, stabbing and slashing in a desperate fury. After a while he saw what he had done and climbed off, stepping in pools of hot blood. Kreg lay there gurgling, drowning, his face destroyed and his neck laid open.
Noko stood over the man, panting, began wiping blood and sweat out of his eyes with a corner of his tunic. Kreg was dying, there was no hope for the man, that was obvious. His head kept flopping this way and that, as if he were scanning the room for his attacker, but Kreg was blind now. Both eyes had been punctured multiple times. Noko stared at him in fascination.
“Kreg?” A woman’s voice. Noko’s head jerked up to the open door of the bedchamber. He looked back at the master, at the bubbles of blood coming out of the veins in his throat. He wiped his feet on the master’s clothes so he wouldn’t slip on the polished floor. Then he went inside the room, and closed the door behind him.