Vol.2, Ch.1, P.7
From my lips left those words, simple, yet urged by neither imagination nor motivation. To be sure, not once before have I humoured the thought of buying a slave for myself.
And yet, here I was.
“B… buy, ye said?”
What was it that scribed my words? That put them to air? That steeled my resolve?
Was it sympathy? Empathy? A defiant cry against the caprice and cruelty of this world?
Perhaps a pang of compassion for the poor girl, who so suffered the scorn of others, just as I had?
Or was it guilt?
The heavy burden borne by a man of battle, whose very words and deeds compelled the creation of these war-slaves?
“A million reugoles. An’ two-hundred thousand more. Thass me price,” said the slaver, fingers raised. “‘ow ‘bout it? Yer purse fat ‘nough, lad?”
Not cheap, but not beyond my means either.
While my time at the Order had earned me all but a regular pittance, I was also quite the penny-pincher. Add to that the salary from my post here at Ström, with which I’ve done little but let pile up, and no lie was to be found in my curt assurance to the slaver, whose face brightened as his ears drank it up.
“W-well then—oh, but er… a word o’ warnin’ ‘fore we settles the deal,” he said, now lowly. “Don’t ye go tellin’ it yer name, eh?”
I blinked. “And why’s that?”
“This one. It’s got a knack fer magicks—the covenantal kind, that is. Can’t make a slave out o’ weavers o’ battle magicks, thass certain. But not so with this one. Well, I says that, but covenants be proper wicked in their own way, yea?”
I see. Fair enough.
To consummate the purchase of a slave, a sort of covenantal magick must first be woven, binding bondsman to master. A “thrallspell”, as it were. This, too, is decreed by Londosian law.
Yet one who, from the outset, is gifted in or knowing of covenantal magicks may, naturally, overwrite the essence of such thrallspells. To do so, only the name of the other party is needed. Hence the slaver’s warning: if the master’s name is known, the so-gifted slave may turn the tables, and make himself master of his own master.
“So er… we gots a deal still, good lad?”
“Hah! Chuff’d t’hear it, I am!” the slaver gleamed with glee. “Phew. Here I thought, t’day be ‘nother stinkin’ day, wot with that one dead an’ burnin’ a hole in me pocket. But fates be fair, t’bring me a buyer fer this one—all in the same moment, no less! Hwahah!” After a toothy cackle, he turned to the girl. “Oi, alga. Sold ye off t’this kind ser, I did. Good on ye, ey?”
“Tch. Oi, ‘ow ‘bout a smile, at least, ah?”
“Has she got a name?” I asked.
A shake of the head. “Damn’d if I know. ‘Alga’ be all I calls it. An’ ye should too, if it pleases ye. If not, well, call it aught what suits yer fancy then, heheh.”
Never in the uncaring course of the slaver’s words did the little girl budge by the tiniest bit.
The next day.
With my duties done at Balasthea, I returned to Arbel at twilight. There, I finished off one more duty for the day: paying the million and more reugoles, having the thrallspell incanted for the Nafílim girl and me, and so on. All were handled by the slaver of yesterday, whom I made sure to enquire of eschewing that shackling spell. But as expected, he was quick to expound to me the illegality of the very notion.
It couldn’t be helped. I was not wont to break any laws, thus, pressing the issue no further, I sealed the deal and soon found myself at home. There in the sitting room did we stand, the girl and I.
I certainly had the manners to offer her a seat to rest her sore feet, but it was for naught. The girl merely stood and stood, silent and stolid of soul.
And so I knelt before her. With my eyes level with hers, I then asked my first question.
“What’s your name?”
A sorry surrender anchored her vacant stare to the floor.
“Right. Names come later. We should get you washed up first,” I relented.
I then went to warm up some water, with which I filled a large basin. After setting it beside the girl, I knelt before her once more.
“Look—I’ve left a flannel right here,” I said, pointing to a washcloth hanging upon the rim of the basin. “You can wipe yourself down with it. Will you do that for me?”
“I’ll not hurt you. Don’t worry,” I assured her. “Well, I might not seem like it, I admit, having just emptied my coffers for a slave, but… I do mean it.”
First and foremost, some understanding was needed between the both of us, but as I feared, my words fell flat. In lieu of answering, she went on watching the wooden floor, eyes empty of emotion.
“…I’ll not hurt you. Truly.”
Another try. The same line, admittedly.
How vacuous a vocabulary I had. A damn shame; even I was exasperated at myself. I searched and searched within, but the right words all escaped me—ones with which to reach her heart.
That was what I was. Helpless.
Was there aught I could do for her?
Battlefields demand deeds, of which I would readily oblige. But words were needed here.
Perhaps action might avail me here? To communicate to her what words cannot?
It was worth a try. Too much of a tongue-twisted want-wit was I, when it came to sensible things to say.
And so I slowly reached out a hand to her. A deed decided, deliberate and delicate.
She seemed the frailest of figures, one who might shatter at the slightest nudge. But were either of us to remain fearful of the intimate touch, then certainly the day could never come. The day when our eyes can gladly meet—and our hearts along with them.
Gently, and gentler still…
…my callused hand set upon her soft cheek.
And for the faintest moment, I sensed a quiver in her eyes.
For however much she seemed a soul surrendered of all life, there was yet warmth welling up from that cheek of hers. Thus I stayed as I was, surrendered of all words. A long lull stretched on. In it: silence, save for the breaths rolling from our lips.
Yet how long of a lull exactly? Where we but faced each other, connected by a simple touch? I could not know, but by its eventual end, the girl’s eyes slowly, oh so slowly, searched up to meet mine.
Our gazes locked at last.
I remained there, returning my regard, with not a thought to utter a word. Instead, I tried a bit of a smile, albeit a clumsy one. I never could trust myself to smile with any grace. A fumbling affair, it’s always been.
Her own regard, an amber-gold stare, fixed itself upon my onyx-black own. Indeed, hers were round and heartfully fair… only, they cast a most heartbroken glint. A reflection, hollow of any hope for tomorrow.
With all I could muster, I set into my gaze a simple promise.
A promise to never hurt her.
And as I did, I wished dearly that it reached her heart.
By the end of those many moments, my hand left her cheek just as gingerly as it had reached out to it.
“I’ve some shopping to do,” I said at last. “Food, clothes, whatnot. Be good while I’m gone, will you? And wash yourself up for me.”
With that, I rose and left the house.
The soft evensky began to twinkle as I walked down the thoroughfare leading to the markets. Yet I had not the mind to take in the dusking townscape. My thoughts were trained elsewhere.
I knew not of what impelled me to purchase the girl like I did. And I knew even less of what I wished to do from here on.
Did I truly believe that I could avail her in some way?
Am I even capable of forging for her—or anyone, for that matter—some semblance of a future?
A muscle-pated pawn who knows little beyond a smattering of swordplay?
What could I accord her? What could I teach her? What could I do for the poor girl? She seemed utterly lost—a soul that had given up.
And yet, I knew not even her name.
I knew not by whom, and through what dark paths she was led to arrive in this place.
Of where she once lived.
Of the life she once had.
Of what she cherished.
Of what she dreamt.
Of the people she knew.
Of the family she loved.
…And of what circumstance that made her into what she was today.
“…’Won’t know till you try,’ they say,” I thought aloud.
Night was falling. A darkness not unlike the murk of the alleyway where we first met. She did all but stand there, empty of aught—even of fear for her slaver, for the bloody knife clenched in his hand, for her fellow slave then lying dead on the ground.
Witless as I was, I knew wholeheartedly of one thing: to just leave her there was never a choice.
The life of a war-slave is crushing. Excruciating. Ruthless. Yet for however much they suffer, their numbers are far from few.
Saving the girl does naught to change that tragic truth.
Saving the girl was naught but a self-serving solace.
More certain again was that I did what I did because I believed it the right thing to do.
I saved her because I wanted to. And simply that.
“Wayward vagrants, you and I. A glad thing indeed if we can get along.”
The vague hope, upon a half-hale voice, vanished into the night sky.