The beast with the black eyes and the black fur looked at me. A short snort was the only reply. The beast went back to his handicraft. Even as a gifted man, trained in the arts of education and identification, I found it hard to watch his gruesome acts as the Walking Statue of the Cowendru.
They told the tale of tribe killing tribe, of families that were the strongest. Most were carved into the side of tree trunks or slabs of lime that the bulls would carry until death. To remember the past, those in wood would be transcribed and set in stone. All were honored and memories were kept alive. Some few, some very few, transcriptions were necessary for those who had no luxury of walking with their statue. They carried the burden of walking as their own statue. They carved their story into their flesh so that they would be remembered. The books said that some grew lustful for the scars, for the stories they told of themselves. The pain of eternal memory was so enticing, that they would accomplish the greatest of deeds even at the risk of losing their bodies to the fires. In their mind, they had already lost their bodies.
I watched as the bull carved the story. Of Slaughter and Surprise. Of Love and Loss. Of Fear and Forgiveness. Of Rage.
Only once did he look up. Only once did he see me watching. He paused only long enough to appraise my value as a threat, calculate the simple math of necessary effort versus the consequential output, finally devaluing me as one would a common kobold.
He worked carefully, tearing his skin with a sharpened horn, perhaps the one he was missing from his own impressive display. He worked up his abdomen, carving the foundation of his story. When he was finished his hands were slick and matted, his chest proud and red with memory. He closed his eyes and shuddered, lowing as I have read they are known to do.
- From the collected journals of Timnuth, First Companion of E’Schat
The whip descended again, resounding with a moist crescendo. E’Schat’s fingers shook as the barb pulled flesh from his bones. Blood poured out of wounds across his back, muscles rippling as he gasped silently from the pain. Rodrik raised his arm for another blow.
Rodrik paused and snarled, bringing his whip down on the minotaur’s back again with a stubborn finality.
“I said enough!” ordered Sten. The Head marched to the overseer, displeasure to be read on his face. Failing to heed the presence of his superior, Rodrik glared at the one the hunters called Skat. It had been since a slave, let alone a beast, had defied him openly and he was not yet done savoring the taste of retribution. He finally glanced at Sten, his satisfaction interrupted by high command, and he grunted acknowledgement.
“Number One Three One Four showed direct disobedience and attempted to prevent me from administering discipline,” snarled Rodrik.
E’Schat’s journey to the mines had not been easy, nor had his presence at the work camp made things easy for the overseers. Traveling across the plains had created a sense of awe in E’Schat that was carried along with the growing sense of defiance toward the humans that had slaughtered his tribe. Hammer Rob had made a crude helmet of Duk’mars horns and wore them to announce his authority over the lands the slave caravan passed through which only fueled E’Schat’s hatred of the humans.
The old salt mines had ancient shafts descending into dark, dry tunnels. As workers came up for the day, E’Schat could see the thirst in their eyes, as if the moisture had been sucked from their bodies. The desiccated slaves were worked until exhaustion only to be awakened the next day with expectations of more.
E’Schat had been here long enough to know that the overseer known as Rodrik was overzealous in his application of discipline and seemed to take enjoyment from exercising his authority over the various slaves in the camp.
If the open expanse of the plains had given E’Schat a sense of wonder, nothing could have prepared the young calf for the diversity within the worker group. There were small, doglike creatures that were naturals in the mines known as kobolds. They were seemingly inexhaustible yet strangely delicate. There were the truly delicate human-looking elves, smaller in stature than the humans but clearly higher thinking. There were only a few elves in the camp, but E’Schat could see them insulating themselves from other groups and engaging in deep conversations in their language. There were more minotaurs like E’Schat but of different furs and tribes. Most kept to themselves, but A’Lif had been able to forge a small community of those from the Forest People now that she was the most senior cow. Together, between shifts in the mine, they helped raise the small, mewling calf that had been plucked from death by A’Lif herself. Lastly, there were even humans that had been subjugated as well. E’Schat took them for prisoners that had been forced into labor, but some did not fit that build.
E’Schat considered the least-furred human that he had met so far. While others had a variety of face furs similar to Hammer Rob, this one was completely furless on his head and face. He had spoken more eloquently than his captors and had even engaged E’Schat in conversation, correcting some of his understandings about the humans. Even that they were called “humans” and not “hoomanz” as E’Schat had been saying; Timnuth had laughed, almost disastrously so, at E’Schat’s drawn out pronunciation of the word.
But even so, he worked the mines, regardless of his lack of strong physique or rough language that the other humans seemed to display. And for that, he had at least earned the value of E’Schat’s protection from the slave masters.
He was the reason why E’Schat now clenched his teeth and picked himself off the ground. Timnuth had lost pace with the work and had fallen out of the line. Of course Rodrik had a watchful eye out for even the smallest of infractions and within moments was flashing his whip to help motivate the exhausted academic.
E’Schat had watched with some amount of disdain. Here was a human being beaten by another human. If anything, it should have been a small reprieve from the labors he had been forced into, yet E’Schat could not shake the feeling that it was his responsibility to do something.
“Leave the furless one alone. He is weak and of frail constitution. I will carry his load until he has recovered,” interjected the young bull.
“You dare!” replied Rodrik, and soon it was E’Schat that was the object of the whip’s attention.
Sten appraised Rodrik with a calculated gaze. Rodrik was trouble for the mines and had gotten the posting because his mother was a courtier in King Iranon’s court. Rodrik’s desire was to teach the beasts obedience at the end of physical punishment and he was all too happy to find an excuse to berate or punish a slave.
Sten was of a different philosophy. He had been overseer of the mines long before Iranon’s first lustrum. The chief overseer had conducted an efficient and long-lived crew of workers that had supplied most of the country’s salt needs for that time. Now that the demand for the trade of salt had increased, the imported workforce required more management. The King’s call for aristocracy to join the efforts had brought the wrong sorts of people into the field, and Rodrik was just another example of those trying to force the powers of nature under his will.
“What good are the workers if you are unrelenting in your punishment?” asked Sten.
“The slaves are only useful if we shape them into the form we need them to be. More arrive every day and those that break in the molding process are easily replaced,” replied Rodrik with calculated nonchalance.
Sten could feel the eyes and ears of the miners key into the overseers’ conversation as they walked past in a slow methodical trudge, pushing loads of salt along the tracks. “The less who break, the more salt we will pull from the earth. For now, return this slave to work and finish your rounds. We will continue this conversation in my quarters after candle watch.”
With a curt salute, Rodrik turned back to the minotaur. He gave him a kick and scolded, “On your feet and back to work, steer.” He leaned in close to help pull E’Schat up and to whisper, “I will be watching you,” before pushing him back into the line of workers.
Sten watched stoically until Rodrik started walking toward the mine entrance, winding the whip back between his hands and hanging it on the belt hook at his side. Rodrik was trouble. Sten was unsure if the words they would exchange later would have any impact on the spiteful noble. He looked to the retreating form of the minotaur with fresh stripes along his back. His fur showed a strange pattern of scabs from recent wounds. The commander returned to his office wondering how long Rodrik had been antagonizing this poor beast.
Ͼ Ѻ Ͽ
E’Schat returned to the slave quarters exhausted. The overseers assigned different jobs based on expected performance. Kobolds and gnomes were left in the mines with their own quarters below. The minotaurs, orcs, or other “bigguns” in the group, were assigned to pushing the carts or pulling the massive ropes that operated the elevator. Other groups such as the elves or humans were assigned to a variety of tasks in the camp from tool repair to cleaning the overseers’ quarters. If the lighter work was filled, they would be assigned to the carts as Timnuth had been earlier that day.
While it had been E’Schat who was whipped, it was Timnuth who looked contrite when he returned to the quarters. Timnuth had tried to catch the steer’s eye a few times during the remainder of the shift, but eventually the work drove thought from his mind. Seeing the big bull now brought the entire episode back to his mind.
“I . . . I . . . Thank you for your protection. I . . . I am unsure if I was worthy,” sputtered Timnuth as he ran his hand over his dusty pate.
E’Schat looked at the extremely furless one. He had been hesitant to approach any of the other slaves, even those of his own tribe. What was the use of building community here? He was a walking reminder that eventually, all would die. That death had no certain hour.
However, E’Schat thought back to the stories of his people, and that of N’abu. The strength of a stranger should not so easily be turned away. Building community he would not. Building an army, though? This was a fertile valley for building alliances and this human now owed him a debt.
“Worthiness is not something I measured before aiding you. However, that does not mean that a debt is not owed.”
Timnuth grasped his own elbow anxiously, “I don’t know what a humble academic could do for a fascinating creature such as yourself.”
“You can start by cleaning the wounds on my back while I think of some equitable price for recompense.”
E’Schat tore some bandages from his meager bedding while Timnuth fetched some water. E’Schat also took some herbs and began to chew them. When Timnuth returned, he set about to wash E’Schat’s wounds of the dried blood and salt dust that had accumulated there. Every tender lave of the rag sent new pain through E’Schat’s tired body. He closed his mind to the pain as he continued to chew.
“These stripes on your back, they add to your story,” Timnuth said reverently.
“My story? What do you know of it?” E’Schat said through the wad of herbs in his cheek.
“Well . . . I’m something of a cultural warrior. One could say that is how I ended up here.” Timnuth sighed ruefully. “Don’t try to defend the personhood of the lesser races is all I have to say about that. Or do and embrace the consequences. I don’t regret my work. I only hope that it had a bigger impact in getting people to understand the creatures they are so eager to bind into captivity. Such as understanding the practice of self-mutilation to inscribe the story of their lives and accomplishments. For a young bull, you have lived a long life. I see here that your mother, a powerful leader, was killed through wrath. Here, I see that your people were slain in . . . battle? Massacre? I must confess that I have not mastered all the symbolism.”
E’Schat was impressed with the human. As much as this one seemed to know of him and his people, E’Schat knew little of the humans outside of his experiences as a slave. He spat the herbs out of his mouth, the bitter taste remaining. He handed the wad over his back to the pensive Timnuth.
“Smear this into the wounds. It will help them heal without infection, though they will scar,” said E’Schat.
“The scars will add to your story. Here amidst the story of your people and your home, this is a testament to your lived experiences. They add to the story on your skin.”
“They are reminders that only reinforce the reminders that I wrote to myself. They will help guide my actions as I walk into the future. They are simply the first lines to a story that has so much more left to be written.” E’Schat looked at some of the other slaves in the room. “Tell me, do you speak Elven?”
“Only the Eastern dialect. Why?” Timnuth replied as he finished wrapping the wounds with the makeshift bandages.
“Because I have thought of a way for you to wipe out your debt. Come Timnuth, we have much to discuss.”
Ͼ Ѻ Ͽ
Sten was finishing a daily report when he heard a knock at the door. He pounced the writing with a fine dust made of cuttlefish bones to help it dry.
“Enter,” he stated loudly.
Rodrik opened the door and strode confidently in.
“You wanted to see me?”
Sten had prepared for this moment earlier but had briefly forgotten about the expected visit. The daily reports had a rigmarole that drove other thoughts from his mind and, while this would be a difficult conversation, he welcomed the diversion.
“Ah, Rodrik. Come in.” Sten rose from his desk and moved towards a small side table that he had prepared with the noble’s game of shatranj. “Please sit down,” Sten said as he motioned to the other side of the table. “I’ve been studying this game. Perhaps you could show me some strategies as we talk.”
Rodrik seemed suspicious of the set of pieces before him, as though the small elephants and chariots would rise from the board and attack him, but sat down after only a short hesitation. What could he have to fear from this backwater administrator?
Sten offered Rodrik two closed fists which each held a foot-soldier piece. Rodrick tapped the one on the right and Sten opened it to reveal a red piece.
“Fire before smoke as they say.”
Sten turned the board on the table and waited for Rodrik to move first. The openings of the game were moments that showed something of a player. Were they patient? Were they wise? Or were they rash, hoping to attack and secure a small victory early at the cost of the battle later?
Rodrik opened with a strong attack on the center with his foot soldiers supported by cavalry. Sten matched it in an unorthodox manner using early flanking moves by his elephants on either side of the board.
Rodrik scoffed when he saw the maneuvers. “I’m not sure what you have been studying, but I can see that you probably need a different book.”
“And what makes you say that?” Sten challenged the young noble.
“The game is won in the centre. By aggressively occupying the spaces in the middle, you can launch attacks and retreat without fear of reprisal.”
“And yet, Black has the position of having to defend. Does that not change how they may need to think about securing a strong base from which to repel the attacks you describe?”
Rodrik sneered. “It seems a poor strategy to play from a losing position.”
Sten shrugged and played another probative move, creating some space on his side of the board. Rodrik reacted as Sten had planned and started to fall into a trap.
Sten brought one of his elephants to the centre, the central four squares of the board. Rodrik, scoffing, took the piece with one of his chariots, a mobile and aggressive piece.
Sten commented, “You think that move was poor?”
“You play too much with your back row. They are more valuable and you put them at risk at a whim. It’s more important to send your foot soldiers in to absorb losses.”
“It is also important to be aware of when you’ve stretched your forces too thin. Foot soldiers can be easily overpowered if they are overworked. Unsupported pieces are easy picking. Shah.” Sten finished with the word for king, indicating that the cavalry piece he moved now threatened Rodrick’s king.
Rodrik slowly took in the board and the fact that the cavalry piece also threatened the chariot that he had driven into the centre. He slowly moved his king from danger. Sten followed by taking the chariot.
He did not smile or gloat but both players knew that the game had taken on a new dynamic. Sten was on the attack.
He began to break the wall of foot soldiers that Rodrick had presented. Rodrick threw them into the fray in an attempt to untangle his position, but Sten was merciless and quick to take the presented advantage.
“Shah. Shah. Shah mat.” With a deliberate finality, Sten trapped Rodrick’s king. He offered his hand out to Rodrik. “Well played, Sergeant. Thank you for going easy on a novice such as me. Having restraint is so uncommon these days.”
Rodrik looked at the hand as if Sten had held out an asp. He deliberated before accepting the handshake and meeting Sten’s gaze. “Thank you for playing me, Captain.”
“You may go.” Sten rose and swept his arm toward the door. As the sergeant grasped the handle, Sten added, “Oh, and Rodrik, please be sure to reprimand the workers appropriately and to notify me if there are any that require my personal attention in the future. Is that understood?”
Rodrik stared at the handle.
Rodrik closed the door behind him and walked back to his quarters.