Chapter Nine: A Candle in the Dark

The trundling, rocking motion of the wagon as it rolled over the lumpy countryside could have been once described as soothing, even melodic in its own special way. Takkris closed his eyes and focused on the rocking, bumping and swaying motion of the wagon. He didn’t belong there, in a caged wagon filled with all sorts of grimy, yellow toothed men. He was the only child there, hardly twelve years old. Unlike the others he was well washed, his skin still had that youthful glow about it, and his teeth were pearly white and his hair was so fine it was almost like spun gold. It had a few snags in it and a couple places where blood had crusted and matted the hair to his head but overall he looked nothing like the people he was stuck with. The wagons rolled and rocked on as he tried his best to block out the horrific stench that clung to him like a blanket of filth.

Takkris reached a hand to his cheek. He had soft lines to his face, with his long hair he could have been called beautiful rather than handsome. His hair was soft and silken, the parts of it that weren’t matted or filthy at least. His skin was darker than most of the people from Grachyr, he had the bronzed, permanently tanned look of the Aldmeir Dominion, even though he stayed inside all day and the only sun he got was from his window. Little wonder as his mother had been born there, he had the coloring of her skin and her beauty but he had his father’s hair and his soft umber eyes. In the right light his eyes shone like shimmering pools of warm honey. He had a softness to his eyes. A compassionate and gentle demeanor was how his mother liked to describe him, but in this context it was just another look of weakness.

He was beginning to understand that he couldn’t be that little boy anymore. He could not stand to be compassionate or kind to strangers, it was strangers who took him from his home and it was strangers who were going to sell him off like some piece of meat. No, he would have to change, break from the mold his mother had once worshipped. He would have to become hard, callused and cautious if he was ever to have any hopes of survival. His knowledge would have to be used to thwart those around him that would see him undone, that would see harm visited upon him. And most of all, he knew that he would have to harm another person. A terrible grievance he could have never seen himself committing in a million years.

He looked down at himself, he had a body that he would consider frail, his mother would call it lithe but he knew he had more feminine features than any highborn male should have. And as a boy, feminine features screamed weakness. He was hard pressed to ignore it too since the matted blood and his very presence in the slave pen was a testament to his weakness and frailty of form.

His calm and quiet exterior made him appear shy and reserved, when in truth he preferred to watch people and their reactions before making any himself. He was aware that was fairly strange for a child but it gave him great insight. He discovered that the quieter he was, the quicker people were to reveal their intentions to him, whether overtly or through subtler ways. Despite all his oddities, he never felt like there was something wrong with him, or that he should change in some way, shape, or form. He was confident in who he was, even if others may not have been. His mother always made him feel loved and safe. Something he poignantly missed sitting in the filthy wagon next to the other desolate souls waiting patiently to die or be sold and worked to death. He imagined when you knew you were going to die, the way in which you died didn’t matter much.

He still dreamt of home, of his rich posh life at the heart of the Grachyr Kingdom. His father had been a harsh man, but he always did right by his family. Or so he thought. It wasn’t until his mother passed less than a year prior that he realized it wasn’t his father, but his mother that had provided him with protection. His father had no sooner finished having men come to carry her things away when he sent a different set of men to take his only son away too. There were no words, no explanations for the betrayal, only a single look that Takkris had glimpsed as he struggled and was lifted up. Taken away from the only home he had known. A look of utter disgust and loathing painted his father’s wizened features. A filthy rag was shoved in his mouth and he had fought to scream out to his father for help, for an explanation, for anything. Nothing would come, just as no help would ever come for him now in the slave caravan.

Takkris had read about them in passing, they operated mostly on the outskirts of the Kingdom. The slavers rarely dealt in children, but a few higher profile groups did and they were handsomely rewarded for it. The latter information was given to him in bits and pieces by over hearing the slavers talk and the murmurs of the slaves he was now stuck with. He hadn’t always been penned in with the broken men who were to be bought and sold like cattle in some city that flouted the laws of common decency. He had had his own carriage. It was small but posh and filled with comforts. He had decent food he was able to wash and bathe himself, he had clean sheets on a clean bed and it was a smoother ride by far. It was at the front of the caravan, which avoided much if not all of the stink from people crammed into barren wagons with hardened iron bars for walls and a sheet metal roof that leaked rusty droplets when it rained. Over the bars were thick sheets of oiled cloth that kept out the rain and most of the sunlight, leaving the people inside constantly in the dark. There were no fresh breezes, nothing but the fetid stench of human despair and suffering. The thick cloth also made it hard for Takkris to tell where they were, dull blurry shapes were the most he could make out, and only when the sun shone from a particular angle.

Back in his own carriage he had been reasonably comfortable, there was more than enough fresh air and generally a stiff breeze that rolled on through his windows and he was fed and taken care of even if he was still a prisoner and a slave. The first time he ran away they had berated him after catching him no more than twenty steps away from the caravan. As if he hadn’t eaten his vegetables after dinner, the treatment was insulting and so Takkris bit and kicked and screamed, but they treated him like no more than a riled up pup. He was placed back inside, scolded and told not to do that again. Naturally he tried, almost immediately and had made it that night nearly fifty paces from the caravan, down a steep hill. If not for the hill he was sure he could have gotten farther away. He had slipped and fallen and by the time he had picked himself up the slavers were on him like dogs on a bone. They smacked him around that time and warned him that if he tried anything foolish again he would forego his comfort. Concerned for himself and reeling from the beating he took from both the ground and the slavers, Takkris bided his time for nearly a week. Then while they were stopped and disposing of the dead slaves and the dogs were busy, he slipped out and made a run for it. He had gotten pretty far that time. He could have almost tasted freedom. If not for a traveler on the road he would have been able to get away. The traveler found him and offered to take him somewhere safe and when the slavers came looking the traveler lied to them at first, feigning ignorance about the boy. It wasn’t until he saw the golden glow of coin that he changed his story completely and without a moment’s notice or care he gave up Takkris’ hiding spot.

His only comfort was that the man never lived to spend that gold. No sooner had Takkris been extradited from the thick underbrush at the side of the road had they slit the traveler’s throat and taken back the bag of blood stained coin. They blamed his death on Takkris and unceremoniously looted the corpse before rolling it into a ditch at the side of the beaten dirt road. It was then that Takkris was thrust into the cage with the rest of the slaves. They were told that if he escaped, they would be beaten and for every minute the child was gone, one of them would be killed. If they kept the child inside and safe they would all get extra food and water. And so the slaves became his jailers. There were far more slaves than slavers and there were always at least two pairs of sunken eyes watching him. He couldn’t scratch his head without a wave of tension rising and rolling through the crowded wagon. He had tried a few times to escape, the bars were just big enough that he could slide through if he tried really hard, but he had barely turned sideways when one of the slaves yanked him out and set him back down hard.

The slavers were rather proud of their design and while it meant they had to give up extra food and take Takkris out every few days to hose him down in order to keep him reasonably clean, they no longer had to watch him like a hawk. The slaves did a fine job of that and it was well into their second month of travel and Takkris still had not tried to escape again. The slavers relaxed their guard to sparing only a few glances at Takkris per day. Takkris stared at his small hands and balled them into fists. He had never been particularly strong or notable. He was smart, and he read about many different subjects ranging from mathematics and engineering to art and poetry. He knew how many hours, minutes and seconds were in a day and he could count as well as any accountant could. His mother had fed him books like he were a starving child and he digested them faster than she could provide. But physically he was nothing special. He had never had a hard day of life until the moment he was sold into slavery. He barely had to lift a finger most days. His food was cooked and brought to him on a silver platter. He would read and eat at the same time, hardly ever taking his eyes from the small printed texts he kept close by. He would have been a scholar or a professor at one of the great academies had he stayed there. There was never any need to learn how to run, to fight or to escape capture, and now he wished he had learned nothing but.

Takkris had shut his eyes and was ready to nod off to sleep when the wagons stopped rather abruptly and hushed voices pierced through the oiled cloth to his small ears. There was something concerning enough that they’d stop the wagons which meant there was a potential for escape if the other slaves could be distracted long enough to miss his exodus. Takkris gently pulled out two iron nails he had been slowly wiggling loose over the course of the past month. The nails were thick and old but pointed and sharp which is exactly what he needed. While he could slip through the bars now that he was thinner, his refusal to eat much only seemed like a protest of the food and the other slaves were quick and eager to eat what he did not, the oiled cloth was lashed to the bottom of the wagon. If he popped out of the bars he would be doing the slavers a favor by catching himself in the cloth. The nails were to cut through, he tested them a couple days back, making tiny nicks in the cloth was easy even doing it blind as he did to avoid suspicion. He sat with his legs crossed and the two black nails resting in his palm. He knew he had to create a diversion of some sort, something for both the slaves and slavers, but he could not think of what.

As Takkris racked his mind for a solution, he overheard the slavers talking to a pair of voices that were new to him. “No, I’m telling you no! The roads south are dangerous Amman! There’s been raiding and cutthroats throughout the area, just a few days ago bandits sacked King’s Valley and burned the damned town to the ground. We cannot go that way. Not unless you want our precious cargo stolen and our throats slit for being where we shouldn’t. Take the road south away from King’s Valley and then circle back up north on the other side of it. You clear Amman?” the voice said.

“Clear as a bell. A few extra days won’t do us no harm, you just be sure to tell our clients that we’ll be running a bit behind schedule. Wouldn’t want them a thinkin’ we’ve run off with their merch, now would we?” said a familiar voice, presumably Amman.

“I’ll be riding up to Fresin now then. The way after King’s Valley seems clear, just be sure to avoid the patrols on the north leg after Culthier. There’s a new captain near the eastern border and he doesn’t take kindly to slavers,” said the first man.

The sound of heavy swift movement echoed through the night and the slavers drew up towards the front of the caravan to speak with the driver. They speech was hardly above a murmur and it drew the slaves attention more than Takkris could have hoped. They had crawled forward to the front. He had almost forgotten that his eyes must have been shut for at least the last hour. They must have thought he was asleep. Now was the perfect time for escape. He slowly opened one eye, the slaves had crawled up to the front and were intently listening to the slavers argue and talk. From the frightened murmurs amongst the slaves it sounded like the slavers wanted to cull the weakest and frailest of them in order to lighten their load and make up for the lost time by going faster. Without any prying eyes to watch him, he slid a nail into each hand and slowly as to avoid attention bent his arms behind himself and made two large cross slashes into the oiled cloth. It was nearly cut clean through, just a tiny bit of a pressure and they’d rip open.

He pulled his arms back and gripped the nails like tiny weapons. He risked opening his eyes completely but saw no slave keeping watch. He knew he had only a few moments before everything returned to normal and his window would be gone. He slipped through the bars, he hardly had to suck in his breath to do so now and he dropped down onto the cloth. For a gut-wrenching second the cloth held. He swore a thousand, thousand curses in his head before it finally gave out and quietly ripped, depositing him on the hard clay ground with a thunk and a groan of pain. It was dark and Takkris was small, which only helped his chances. His eyes were adjusted to the dark and the lanterns attached to the side of the caravan were focused at the front so the slave wagons did not draw too much attention. He could make out a roadway up ahead amid sparse trees and brush. He glanced heavenward and affirmed his suspicions, the road was north, which meant it probably went into King’s Valley. Since the slavers didn’t want to go that way he knew it was the closest thing to a safe haven he’d ever get.

His legs were weak and his knobby knees trembled against the strain as he ran as fast as he could while remaining as quiet as possible. It wasn’t until he was out of sight of the caravan did he run flat out. He couldn’t imagine bandits would be much worse than what was coming for him. He knew the kind of people who would buy him, men with too much power and sickening tastes. He’d be used up like some sort of doll and then killed. He refused to suffer through a living death like that. He would rather die at the sword or knife of a bandit than be tortured by perverted, twisted creatures wearing the skin of a man. He ran for his life and didn’t stop until the sun began to peek above the trees to his right. He had kept the stars in his sights as much as possible, using them to guide his way. Judging from the maps he had seen he was anywhere from two to seven leagues from the farming village of King’s Valley.

If he was lucky he knew he could continue north and take a path up the western mountains to a small cerelune processing town of no import. It was regulated enough that if he could reach there the slavers would never dare touch it. That and they would have to trek through bandit territory to reach it and with such a slow moving caravan they’d be ripe for the picking. Meanwhile Takkris could reasonably slip through. He had the whole thing plotted out in his head. He would try to find shelter in one of the burned out husks of a home and sleep for the night. He was tired and fatigued and thirsty. His lack of eating as a way to slim himself down had side effects he had not anticipated. It weakened his already pathetically low endurance and made him feel dizzy and nauseous when he tried to keep going. He had stopped running for nearly an hour now. He hadn’t the energy in him and the fear and worry had all been burned out.

He knew his body was searching for an alternative fuel source in the absence of both food and now fat. What little he had would be used but at the rate he knew he would have to move and his physical state, that wouldn’t last even a full day. Instead his muscle – what little there was – would be cannibalized so he could keep functioning. But the higher functions of his brain; reason, logic and strategy, the very things he counted on for survival, would be the first to go in order to conserve his body’s energy. He knew what he had to do but that didn’t make the progress any faster or his struggle through weak twigs and sparse undergrowth any easier. If Takkris was to make it to King’s Valley he knew he had to stay in the brush, the road would make his journey easier but if there were bandits still around he would stand out like a candle in the dark. Worse yet, if the slavers came after him, the road would surely be their main means of conveyance.

For hours he slogged through, growing progressively more fatigued and delirious with hunger and thirst. His stomach knotted and gnarled sent waves of sharp pain through his gut and his frail legs nearly buckled at every step. He had thought of lying down in the brush and trying to hide there and sleep for the night when the forest ended at a large field. Its crops were still standing, tomatoes, corn, and even tellis leaf. He could not believe his luck. He ran as far and as fast as his twiggy legs would take him, plucking ripe fruits and vegetables from their stalks. He stuffed his face full of all that there was to offer and more. As he neared the edge of the field he noticed that every farm building was burned to a pile of ash and rubble. But the fields were left whole. Not the brightest sort of bandits. Why would they leave the crops and food to rot while only ransacking the buildings? If this was done by the Interis Empire then they would have burned and salted the fields. So either the bandits who did this are by far the most novice bandits, they were killed in the middle of their attack, or they weren’t bandits at all and only wanted it to look like the town had been sacked by bandits.

Takkris made his way through the town’s center amid the burned out houses little more than blackened sticks of wood and ash. He took one of the tellis leaves, which was nearly half the size of his torso and ripped it down into small chewable strips. Tellis leaf had powerful medicinal properties while it was still fresh and it had psychoactive properties when it was dried out. It could heal hurts and keep a person alert for hours if chewed slowly, so long as the leaf itself wasn’t ever swallowed. Doing so would result in severe gastric distress and would require induced vomiting to avoid the onset of fatal poisoning. He knew a great deal about the human anatomy as well as physiology, it was a subject of great interest to him and his mother had always done her best to sate his hunger for knowledge.

As Takkris neared the center of the town he could see a lone building standing on its own. Standing was a bit of an overstatement, really. It leaned with intent to fall and he couldn’t see from a structural standpoint how the damned thing was still standing. Nearly three or four stories it was a black outline in the dim moonlight. It stood at the top of a hill, its back to a sheer mountainside. It would have made a good watchtower position. It would however not make a good shelter. Assuming that it wouldn’t fall over at the slightest touch, it was the only whole building around. Should the slavers come, Takkris knew that would be the first place they would look for him.

He rooted around each of the burned out piles of rubble. He tried to squeeze through small gaps, anything that he could slide in to hide and sleep for the night. He was tired and weary. The full stomach only saddled him with additional soporific leanings. The tellis leaf was all that was keeping him alert at this point, he struggled to lift small piles of broken, charred beams but even the smallest one was several times too heavy for him. He cursed his lack of physical strength and kept trying, each house, farm and building of unknown origin he tried again and again until he was sure he could not gain access. A steady rain began to pour as the sky lit up with the bright white flashes of lightning and the valley rumbled with the peals of thunder. Eventually, weary, soaked and tired as he was he knew the only shelter he would find would be the single building that stood at the top of the hill.

He instantly regretted the decision to go towards it but knew he had no other option. It would only take a few hours at his weight and age to grow hypothermic. The night was cool and a staunch wind was blowing about as the rain fell at a steady pace. He was already shivering and if he didn’t get out of the wind and the rain it didn’t matter if the slavers found him or not. He would be dead by morning. And so, against his better judgment he made the trek up the packed dirt road to the house on the hill. It was darkly stained and its windows were broken in places, its front door boarded up. Takkris circled the house cautiously, hoping to find an easy point of entry. The boards were far enough apart that he might be able to slip through, but he had no guarantee he could open the door beyond.

Takkris came upon the rear porch. It was a small thing with a caving roof over its back door. The door itself looked intact enough to be usable. He walked atop the broken and buckling floorboards of the porch before he approached the door. Takkris stuck out a frigid arm and pushed tentatively on the door. Whatever locking mechanism it had failed almost immediately and the door swung open to the sound of crumbling rotted wood and creaking metal in dire need of greasing. Takkris slipped inside and shut the door behind him. The inside was significantly warmer even if it was drafty. Somebody had clearly lived here, without any talent for fixing up the place obviously. He thought as he wandered around the lower floor checking out each room and saw the terrible state the house was in. It would have been beautiful at one point, a stately mayor or judge’s house perhaps. But whoever lived here must have been interested in nothing but preventing the further decay of their housing situation.

The rooms were filthier and most of them were blocked off by old rotting furniture or large pieces of hanging cloth crudely fixed to doorframes. Takkris couldn’t help but cluck his tongue at the poor workmanship. And instantly he began to think of the ways he could quickly and easily improve upon it. But he knew his energy was best spent elsewhere and he should be getting along once first light came besides. So he used the shoddy workmanship as a guide, whoever lived there must have had a goal in mind. The cloths and piles of furniture blocked dangerous or drafty rooms, keeping the center of the house muggy and humid in the cold night. He had looked through half of the ground floor when he realized that it wasn’t entirely livable, at least not by whomever had once called this place home. I really hope I don’t find a body upstairs. He thought to himself as he rounded on the wide staircase.

He was about to place a foot onto them when he saw the way the boards sagged towards the center. He didn’t trust them to hold even his new meager weight, so he walked alongside the railing which was in surprisingly good condition compared to the rest of the house. The boards protested in sharp creaks and groans but they didn’t give way. His suspicious were confirmed when halfway up the steps he saw a fairly large hole slightly bigger than the type his own leg would make if he fell through the center of one of the steps. He continued his way up, but took the opportunity of the hole to spit out his tellis leaf. It would never be found and hopefully the water stains of his passage would dry by the time the slavers came looking. Based on how fast they could move with that caravan by the time they realized he was gone it would take them at least eight hours to get through to King’s Valley. He only needed a few hours of sleep and he could be on his way, with a few hours lead time.

Reaching the top of the stairs he found heavy curtains pressed against the windows, pinned with furniture at the bottom and fixed to the top in some fashion he couldn’t readily make out. The light was dimmer nearly non-existent which made it hard for him to move around. He went slower, feeling out his way by gingerly extending his foot and pressing then repeating with his next foot. All but two rooms were blocked off and the stifling stink that wafted out from the room closest to the stairs was obvious a makeshift bathroom of some sort. He went towards the farthest room, one that should overlook the town below assuming the windows weren’t covered. He pulled open the door, and at flinched. There was a body in the center of the room, wrapped in moldering old blankets and sheets, no more than rags really. He poked it with his foot but they gave easily. Upon closer inspection he had found that there wasn’t in fact any body there. It was just a pile of filthy rags bundled up. Pushed sharply in the corner was a pile of more rags but they were flattened out to make something resembling an animal’s den. To a lesser cultured person it may have been a simulacrum of a bed but not to Takkris.

So whoever was here intended this lump to be a distraction. They were being chased as well then. They’re clearly not here anymore, I wonder if they managed to evade their captors too? I hope I can have the same luck. If not, at least I can see them coming and when I do I can jump out the window as a last resort. Better to be dead than a slave to some sick thing’s lust. Takkris thought to himself as he bedded down for the night. He removed his clothing, rich fabrics that reminded him of home and set them out to dry. The rags smelled of sour old sweat and mold and he could feel their filth leeching onto his bare skin. But they were dry and made him warm, and he knew he couldn’t afford to be picky.

Sleep came quickly to his tired mind and travel wearied body. He wasn’t used to life on the run. He had no keen sense of environment or awareness like somebody who had grown up looking over their shoulder. He had a safe, comfortable home with all his needs met. This made him ill prepared for his troubles and poorly equipped to handle the predicament he was thrust into. It was only when two strong arms gripped his shoulders that he awoke from a deep and otherwise recuperative slumber. The slavers had descended upon him faster than he had thought they would. Faster than they should have and they were reclaiming their property. Sluggish and bleary eyed as he was he fought, kicked and screamed but the man held him like a steel vise. He could feel his thick meaty fingers dig painfully into his bony shoulders, forcing a yelp of agony from Takkris.

“Now, you’ve had your fun boy. I can’t say I blame you for wanting to leave, but you gotta remember, we’re the ones who will catch hell if you do. You can’t rightly expect one of us to pay for your own failings now can you? This is your fate boy and you best get used to it. No more fun, no more fancy clothing. If we didn’t have clients lining up to pay a king’s ransom for you, you’d have been put down like the little runt you are. That clear? Nod you worthless scrag,” the man holding him barked.

Takkris nodded. Any more fighting would only lead to more pain. There was absolutely nothing he could do, they knew it and he knew it. He’d bide his time and play nice. The tellis leaf! It’s in my pants, I have to get it. He had kept the small strips in one of the pockets. To anybody not well versed in botany they would just think he collected pretty pink leaves or petals of some sort. Without them any plan of escape was significantly diminished.

“My clothes, it’s cold and wet outside. You wouldn’t want me getting sick would you? That’d certainly drive down the price all those rich stately men would pay for me,” Takkris wheedled.

A second man clucked his tongue and picked up his pants off from the nearby chair. He held them out and motioned for the hulking brute who kept Takkris airborne to set him down. Takkris felt the reaffirming solid ground beneath his feet and rolled out his shoulders stiffly. He took the pants and put them on simply, he made sure every movement was deliberate and didn’t shake or tremble as the fear gripped his heart and strangled his hopes of escape. “My shirt too,” he added.

The man tossed it at Takkris, sending him staggering back from the slight jolt. He pulled it over his head and straightened it out. It was a beautiful royal blue, thick threads that would keep him warm when it was dry and breathed enough to keep him cool on a hot summer’s day. He knew the price of such things. Money was far from a foreign concept to Takkris. He put his hands into his pockets and turned his head sharply to the side, his golden strands of hair flicking to the side. He tried to stay indifferent to his situation, but his shoulders shook despite his protests and his breathing caught and ratcheted with his uncontrollable sobbing. As quickly as his mood changed the two men shifted their own, there was a sense of pity – no matter how small – for the child and his circumstance. They gave him a few moments of uninterrupted time where he cried quietly to himself. He knew he didn’t have long to get himself under control. Takkris focused on the feeling of the leaves in his pocket, he could use them to secure his future later. He fought hard to prevent a smile from creeping onto his lips.

Takkris didn’t raise a hand to wipe the tears that traced shimmering lanes down his face. He looked at his captors with a thin veneer of firm resolve atop an ocean of fear and doubt. “I’m ready to go back,” he said and was surprised that his voice sounded more disconnected than he had felt.

“You going to do anything foolish like try and run off? It’s a ways back to the caravan and I don’t think either of us wants you to be carried back. But if you try and run off or do anything foolish we’ll make damn sure that the only way you’ll be escaping is by belly crawling like a snake. Is that clear boy?” the man Takkris recognized as Amman. He was large with bulging arms of thick muscle like somebody had over stuffed a stocking full of odd sized rocks. He had dark beady eyes like black beetles and a shaved head save for the crown where it was gathered into a ponytail at the back that went down to his shoulder blades. He had thick discolored bands that crisscrossed his arms and parts of his face. He was no stranger to pain or combat and Takkris swore he could recognize the marks as lashes from a whip. He caught Takkris staring and clapped him hard across the back of his head, making him stagger forward and forcing stars to dance in his eyes. “No gawking boy, nod and get moving. You’re going to lead us back. I ain’t leavin’ ma’ eye off you.”

Takkris halted his arm halfway up to his head and nodded, willing his feet into motion. The pain reached through his head and down his back like the spider webbed cracks of a thin sheet of ice. He walked stiffly out of the room and down the stairs, it was just barely dawn. There was no way the slavers could have caught up to him so fast. They must have left the caravan relatively unguarded and ran after him. If only the other slaves had an ounce of self-preservation they could have done something about their situation with the main slaver gone. The other man was a hulking beast of a man with a full beard and thirsty, hungry eyes of a starving man. Takkris had seen that look in destitute men in the military. He would be the weak link. This man would be hungry for more power, more money and more respect. If Takkris played his hand right he could cause a rift between these two men. He doubted it’d change his position or circumstance, but one less person who watched him would only help his chances of escape.

The two men walked on opposite sides of the stairs, several large holes were broken into the center of the stairs where they must have nearly fallen through. How did I not hear them? They must have been trampling about like bears… The front door swung open on its rusted hinges, the rain was droning harder now. The hulking pale man whom Takkris hadn’t a name took out two earthy brown cloaks and wrapped Amman in one before taking care of himself and pulling the hood up over his shaggy black hair. Takkris couldn’t help notice they didn’t have one for him and he fought the urge to smile smugly.

“Shouldn’t I get one? I mean, you don’t want me getting sick. You don’t want me injured or damaged goods right? So that would include getting exposure and having any sort of illness result from my lowered immune system by staying wet and cold for hours on end. I’m surely not as fast as either of you, and if you insist I lead then it’ll take us several hours to leave the valley,” Takkris said sincerely as he could manage. He knew who would be forced to give up their cloak. And he knew what sort of animosity that can breed when a subordinate is forced to endure intense discomfort at the behest of their better.

“You heard the boy Yaman. Give him your cloak,” Amman ordered.

The man stared as if he was processing what was going on. He certainly didn’t seem too bright or capable on his own. After a few moments of lingering in the doorway he slowly took off the cloak and held it out to Takkris. Who inclined his head with mock gratitude and pulled the excessively large thing over himself. It smelled like tobacco and sweat, the smell nearly choked him and he forced himself to stop from retching by clapping a hand over his mouth and forcing his lips shut. The other two men didn’t seem to care for his plight and only waited with vanishing patience as he steadied himself. The cloak’s sleeves were almost a foot too long and the bottom trailed behind him like a bridal train. It would be tattered and filthy by the time he was done with it and nearly useless to this Yaman character. That’d inevitably lead to a conversation asking for recompense for the cloak and argument over the decision of Amman to not give him a single copper. With the hood pulled up and hiding his face he leaned his head down and smiled to himself. Perhaps he had a way out after all. Even if the plan to poison with tellis leaf failed, he might have a backup.

Takkir placed one foot after the other, making his way out onto the blustery porch. He tucked his hands into the pockets and found a weak seam in the right pocket. He continued forward at a slow but respectable pace. Enough that he wouldn’t be prodded to go faster, but slow enough that he could delay the inevitable horror of being a slave again for several hours at least. He kept his head down as the rain pelted his hood and drowned out every sound but his breathing and that of the rain. He slowly worked his finger at the weak seam in the right pocket, slowly stretching and breaking the threads. Luckily the pocket itself was empty and when he was able to slide a few fingers out from the pocket he strained to slip them into his own pocket on his pants. He reached and walked his fingertips around until they felt the familiar smooth leaf of the tellis plant. He pulled it up into the pocket and then pulled it out to look at it curiously.

“What’s this?” he asked curiously, his eyes giving away nothing.

“What’s what boy?” barked Amman coming up on his right to get a look at what he was holding up.

“This, it’s some sort of leaf. Is this a lucky leaf? It doesn’t look particularly edible,” Takkris continued.

Amman looked at it but there was no recognition in his eyes. Just as I thought, he doesn’t know what it is. But will brute number two? He thought as he turned to look at Yaman who shrugged unceremoniously. He clearly didn’t know what it was, but that look in his eyes betrayed him. Takkris knew the gleam of greed in a man’s eyes when he saw it. Despite that, Yaman made no move to claim the leaf. Takkris knew he’d have to push a little harder. “Is this yours?” he asked to Amman, offering it to him. That had the desired effect and Yaman reached and nabbed the outstretched leaf from Takkris hand before Amman could grasp it for himself.

“Is mine, yes,” Yaman said. He hid the leaf suspiciously in his pockets and poignantly looked away.

Takkris turned to face the sodden ground, pockmarked with puddles of rippling water. He looked at his bare feet as they grew muddy and numb from the cold and he smiled to himself. Just one more thing to send him over the edge. Takkris searched the ground with his eyes but kept his head still as he could. After what was at least a couple of leagues he finally found something suitable. A small piece of glass about thirty paces ahead. It was small enough that the boots the slavers were wearing wouldn’t even notice, but Takkris’ bare feet would get sliced up. He sucked in his breath as they approached it and he counted the steps until the glass. He glanced at Amman and Yaman, but both of them were too busy watching Takkris’ back to notice the ground ahead. Takkris cringed as he turned back, just a few steps now, he didn’t know how much it would hurt but if it didn’t look real his plan wouldn’t work.

Takkris felt a sharp ripping pain at the bottom of his foot and he tumbled forward to the ground holding his foot and crying out in pain. Luckily he hadn’t any need to feign the pain or the screaming. He hadn’t ever truly been hurt before and it shocked and sent waves of sharp lightning throughout his foot and up out of his mouth. The two men quickly rushed over to see what was wrong, but it was clear their first thought was that he was trying something deceptive. At least until they saw the muddy shard jabbed into the bottom of his right bare foot and the thick line of red trailing through the mud caked sole of his foot and dripping onto the ground below.

“Stay still boy,” Amman barked at Takkris who was wailing and swaying back and forth in sharp agony, “Yaman, hold him while I take out the glass.”

Two strong arms clamped onto Takkris’ shoulders and held him firm despite his urgent unexplainable need to rock back and forth. Amman yanked out the shard and tossed it into the flooded ditch as another sharp wave of pain came over Takkris.

“It doesn’t look too deep, give me your canteen Yaman. Now. Don’t give me that look, you heard me,” ordered Amman.

Yaman slowly unbuckled the canteen’s hook from his belt and held it out to Amman, who quickly emptied its contents over Takkris’ foot, cleaning away both mud and blood until it was reasonably clean. He took out a small white roll of what Takkris recognized as field dressing, and he wrapped the cloth around the arch of his foot where the wound was. He did a shoddy job, but decent enough that the bleeding should staunch in a few minutes as long as his foot was kept elevated and he didn’t walk on it. Takkris had only meant to slice his foot some, a superficial wound that would cause more blood than actual damage. But he had oversold it and he knew if he walked on it the wound would open again and he’d start bleeding. Amman seemed to be thinking along the same lines as he stared at Takkris’ tear-streaked face and snot-bubbling nose. For a moment Takkris saw a sliver of compassion.

“He good now, yes?” asked Yaman.

“No, the wound’s too deep for him to walk on. I don’t want him losing that foot. You will carry him the rest of the way Yaman. Is that understood?” replied Amman.

Yaman ground his yellowing teeth together and made no noise of acknowledgement, but he did bend down and pluck Takkris from the sodden ground and held him up into his arms. He slung him over his shoulder like a sack of flour and Takkris began to get a little queasy looking at the ground upside down.

Amman groaned. “Not like that you oaf! You need to carry him like something valuable, keep his foot elevated or else it won’t mend right!” snapped Amman.

Yaman shook with anger but he followed the orders he was given and Takkris did his best to look the poor little hurt boy. It didn’t take much for him to pull it off, he already felt like that already. This had turned out better than he had planned. He had only thought to remove Yaman’s boots, but now he was without his water and forced to carry a boy at least a few more leagues in the driving rain without any cloak. It was clear that Yaman was treated like a mule and now that thought had pierced into Yaman’s thick skull. Takkris turned his head and smiled to himself despite the pain that surged through his foot and brought tears to his eyes. He wiped at his runny nose leaving shimmering streaks on the cuff of the cloak, he didn’t care look at Yaman but he could tell from his trembling that he was displeased by such an act. Takkris did it a few more times, intentionally blowing out his nose while he did so. Were his mother alive she’d have flipped her lid at such a crude and uncouth disregard for manners and proper decorum. Then again, he was going to be sold as a sex slave, so he imagined that she would be more concerned about that than his lack of manners in the presence of his captors.

It took them several hours to get to the caravan, which was parked in a thicket with the few guards that remained positioned around the caravan defensively. The look of relief on their faces told Takkris that they hadn’t actually run into any bandits. A shame, I suppose it would have been asking for too much to have bandits kill the remaining guards. I’ll have to rely on the luck I make myself. That leaf should try out in a few days and I can grind the rest that I have into a paste and that should dry in just a day. But how would I use it? I could spread it to the slaves, but then I’d be trapped in with psychotic people with nothing to lose. Assuming the slavers were true to their threat and they killed some of the slaves and beat the rest, that would mean I would be a primary target of their ire. No, doing so would be too dangerous, especially if I am going to walk out of this alive.

Instead of placing him back with the slaves, they put him in a different wagon a much smaller austere one. It had four bunk beds in it. “Yaman, the boy gets your bunk, you can sleep on the floor, or a spare bunk if there’s one available. I’m not leaving him out of my sight from now on,” said Amman.

Yaman made no noise in response. The only understanding he showed was a quickening of his pace towards the bottom bunk against the front of the wagon and deposited him harshly onto the stiff bed. Takkris wouldn’t have called it a bed, it was more like a cot made of lumpy rats. It reeked and made him gag as he turned over and lost what little contents remained in his stomach all over the cloak and the small table of trinkets. Yaman snapped and raised a hand to strike Takkris, but it was halted by Amman who stopped him and pulled him back. When Takkris had regained his senses he was surprised to see the two were straining against one another. Yaman clearly wasn’t yielding to Amman. No, no not now. This wasn’t supposed to happen now! You were supposed to do it later when I was able to slip out! Stop fighting him you idiot, he’s going to kill you, don’t you know that? He screamed internally. But he already knew it was too late for the man. The look on Amman’s face was that of severe disdain.

And so it came as no surprise when the flash of a knife was followed by a spray of crimson from the hulking man. Yaman ceased his struggling and instead frantically tried to wrap his meaty hands around the thick line of red at his throat. Thick ropes of crimson sprayed out as Amman pulled on his forehead and smacked his arms away like he would do a child, forcing Yaman to bleed out faster by opening the wound more. Takkris stared in horror as he saw both the blood and life leave Yaman’s body. His eyes darkened and glazed as his body went limp. Amman let go and Yaman’s thick lifeless corpse fell to the ground with a heavy thunk and Amman stepped out of the wagon, leaving Takkris alone with the body. The spray of blood had reached within a few inches of the bunk, it stained the wooden flooring a deep red and was quickly soaking into the wood and draining through the tiny gaps between the planks.

Only a few moments later two thin men, pale as ghosts with wide wild eyes came in and without looking at either the body or Takkris pulled the what was once Yaman out by the ankles. They came back with buckets and rags cleaning the floors as best as they could. But the blood had already soaked through. Takkris knew that blood was unique, it stained everything it touched and no matter how hard it was cleaned there would always be a stain, no matter if it was visible to the naked eye or not. There was simply no erasing where one’s life had ended, try as they might. They used harsh chemicals and solvents that would throw off the nose of the dogs, but Takkris could still see the stain, splattered and spread out with a pool gathered some five paces from his bed. The smell of the harsh chemicals couldn’t even blot out the metallic tang of Yaman’s blood. His one hope at surviving this horrible situation, his way out was dead. He had planned everything so well and the one thing he hadn’t planned on had sent the brute over the edge.

Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe Yaman wasn’t angry at Amman but rather, at me. I thought he would blame Amman but what if he blamed me for taking everything from him? Had I misread his intentions and his desire for more?

Takkris pulled off the cloak, now layered in vomit and sweat it made him want to retch again. He struggled with it at first like a small animal caught in a net before he managed to pull it off and throw it to the ground in a wad. He wiped his mouth with his arm and rolled over to face the plain wooden wall. He didn’t want to see anything else. Oddly enough it wasn’t the life lost that bothered him, he hadn’t even been bothered that the slaves might have been killed or tortured. Surely they were going to get the same or worse from their new owners and besides they didn’t offer him any help, why should he care for their plight? He shook his head and curled his knees towards his chest. I just want to go home…

There was more rustling, more harsh smells before the wagon grew quiet again. The peace he had desired so much hardly lasted a few minutes before the wagon was pulled forward in a sharp lurch. The rocking, swaying motion of the wagon was more pronounced than the larger pens for the slaves. It made Takkris queasy like he was on a boat in rough seas. He tried to focus on the rocking and sway his body weakly along with it to stop the seasickness. Eventually he grew accustomed to the rocking and swaying and he found it easy to pretend to sleep. Several times he thought he heard Amman come into the wagon to check on him. He didn’t seem to think Takkris was going anywhere. At least he’s not staying in here watching me like a mother hen, waiting for me to make a move.

When he felt sure that Amman had gone and wasn’t going to be coming back, he pulled out one of the strips of tellis leaf from his pocket, he ripped it in half and stuffed both into his mouth to chew, each on a separate side. He reached his hands down and slowly worked the bandage loose enough to get his fingers between his skin and the bandage. He knew by now that the blood would have clotted and adhered to the bandage, pulling it off would be painful and it would obviously reopen the wound. But he had to make sure his foot would heal faster than expected if he had any hope of escape. A wound like his without any treatment but running water – whether it was sterile or not was highly unlikely – over it and wrapping it in a bandage would take at least two weeks to heal. If he could make the tellis leaf into a paste he could place it against the wound and it would heal within a week’s time as long as he stayed off it.

He spat out one of the strips of leaf and worked the slimy pink paste into a relatively flat mash. He then pulled on the bandage and let out a tiny, strained yelp as he felt the wound rip open and the bandage pull and rip at his skin. He quickly slid the flattened mash inside and pressed it hard against the wound. He groaned through the waves of pain that washed over him as he clung to a tiny rock of willpower amid a stormy ocean. Wave after wave threatened to pull him from his rock but he clung on for his life. He was sure he passed out a few times but couldn’t exactly be sure. The tellis leaf would make sure his wound was not infected and it would aid in healing but the nerves were raw and anything touching them was pure agony. The leaf’s antiseptic qualities would continue to cause a constant burning sensation, for at least a day as he had read, but the speed at which it could close a wound was not yet rivaled by the medical sciences.

The days drifted in and out of memory as they blurred together. Takkris was more tired than he had realized, he felt strained and spread thin. He knew what he had to do, he had to escape to find a way out but the wagon had no windows, and the door was barred shut from the outside. The only times it was opened was twice a day for bathroom breaks. The only thing he could do was to keep up the façade that his foot was badly injured. He would limp awkwardly whenever he could sell it and hop on one foot as many times as he could before he inevitably fell. By the end of the journey he had almost perfected hopping on a single leg. The roads nearby were filled with traffic but none of them seemed to think much of the obvious slaver caravan pulling its way to a large, beautiful city ahead. They had taken a significant detour, with one less person to split the profits with there was no longer any complaining about the time they had taken to get to their destination.

By Takkris’ judgment they were headed to Fresin, a sprawling massive city that sat at the out northern outskirts of the Grachyr Kingdom. It wasn’t far from the Blassein Sea to the north a few leagues. There was a large river, which Takkris couldn’t quite remember the name of, that flowed through Fresin and out into the ocean. Fresin was a beautiful city by all accounts and a popular destination and home for the rich. His father had preferred closer to the law and order of the capitol. But clearly the protection of the law did not extend to his only son. He thought bitterly. He had heard nothing about slaves being sold at Fresin, the city was far too posh and upper class to allow such a dark and evil thing to exist within its walls.

Takkris had had to use up most of the tellis leaf to abate the agonizing pain he had been forced to endure the last few days, and all that he had left was a single partially dried strip. It’d be several days at least before it completely dried out and the last time he had gone for a bathroom break he could see the tall white walls of Fresin in the distance. He didn’t have time to let it dry and then crush it into a powder and use it. But there was no way he could dry it without being detected. There was no candle or lantern inside the wagon. He was kept in the dark as much as possible save for the small gaps between the boards that let in slices of brilliant light that told him what time of day it was. They had been going north for a while now which made things easier. Since he was facing the south when he sat on the bunk he could tell it was morning when there was light from the left and evening when there was light on his right. Noon and midday were harder to tell since the roofing was solid and the only sign it was midday was the extra dose of heat and the lack of bright shining light from either side.

Slowly the trundling smoothed, they must have gotten onto a main road now. He could hear voices around them, a dull roar of dozens upon dozens of voices. It sounded similar to when he would go out with his mother into the market district to peruse the latest wares. The sound of merchants hawking their goods, trying to shout over the other merchants right next to them created a droning, buzzing sound that was impossible to tell whether it was human speech or some creature miming what it thought was speech. The wagon surprisingly was unimpeded on its journey, a far cry from what he had seen back in the capitol. Whole trains of expensive merchant wagons would be at a standstill for hours as the roads cleared of people and other wagons. But the caravan itself never stopped its constant, slow movement despite all the noises of the city around them. Takkris was about to press his face to one of the walls and try to peer through the sliver of a gap between the planks when Amman opened the door and pulled himself inside. He looked at Takkris.

“We’re nearly there. Now I’m going to give you something,” he had started.

“What’re you going to give me?” shot Takkris as he scrambled as far as he could away from Amman.

“Something to make you sleep boy. We’re in a city, we have to act civilized. I can’t have you screaming out your lungs now can I? I don’t want any trouble, you have two choices, either you take this vial willingly, or I will shove it down your throat. Now, which would you prefer?” asked Amman, setting down a small vial filled with a clear liquid on the table next to Takkris.

He took a few moments to think it over. He didn’t know what sort of sedative he was using, there were ways to counteract a variety of chemicals but without knowing which it was he couldn’t employ the proper methods. So he took the vial, popped the small cork and sniffed the liquid inside. Sweet, with a spicy scent. That makes it likely to be Lochjir. Only induced vomiting and sharp pain can block out its effectiveness. And I doubt I can just throw up as soon as I drink it. I haven’t had anything to eat yet which means it’ll be fast acting. He nodded, and pulled the small glass vial to his lips. He looked at Amman and poured it back with a sharp tilt to his head and emptied the vial. He kept the liquid in his mouth, its sweet and spicy flavor burned and tasted sickening like rotten fruit. He chucked the vial angrily at Amman, missing and hitting the wall behind him where the vial shattered on the wall.

Amman, not one to be fooled inspected the wall for any sign of dampness from the vial. While he was distracted Takkris pulled the partially dried leaf from his pocket and plucked it into his mouth. He could feel the liquid soaking into the leaf, but he had no idea if it would be enough to make any sort of difference. He swallowed it and cringed as it felt it slide against the back of his throat. No sooner had he did Amman stomp towards him and pry his mouth open to check. Satisfied that the boy had done as he was told he left and barred the door shut on the other side.

Lochjir was a fast acting sedative, and it was already beginning to work, numbing his lips, fingers and toes. He staggered over to Amman’s table and pulled open the bottom drawer, removing a brass pin from the rear of the drawer and tucking it into the seam of his waist. It pricked his hip a little, just enough to draw blood and produce a wince of pain. At least I know it won’t be going anywhere now that it’s stuck in me. He thought to himself with a jolt of pain. He had barely managed to stagger back to his bunk when Amman came in to check on him. Takkris could barely keep himself upright. He swayed like a leaf in the wind, first this way then that, almost toppling to the bed but never quite making it. Thinking was like pushing jelly through a sieve, he strained and grasped at the thoughts but they were sluggish and difficult to decipher. A part of him knew lochjir should have knocked him out completely by this point, so that means the tellis leaf was doing something at least. But what exactly, he could not be sure. He had also swallowed it, which meant he had between two and four hours to expel it before it irreversibly poisoned him.

Amman strode over to him. There was recognition in his eyes. He understood the effects of lochjir, it was clear he had used it several times before. As he drifted in his own body, hardly kept upright Takkris couldn’t understand how Amman was a human being. He knew that he had a life, a mother and father and perhaps more family than that. Did they know what he did? Did he care? There was sharp cognitive disconnect, he couldn’t understand how Amman was anything more than a villain, a vile evil creation. To suggest he was human, that he had tender moments, loving embraces, hopes and dreams was to give this monster a human face. One that he didn’t deserve. There was no excuse for selling people as products. If he refuses to think of people as anything more than pieces of meat to hawk to the highest bidder, then I have no reason to honor him with anything more. He’s nothing more than a rabid animal to put down.

Amman hefted him up into his arms, cradled like he might have actually cared for Takkris. But he knew that Amman only did it because he didn’t want to damage his merchandise and take a hit to profits. The lochjir was coursing through his veins now, slowing his heart to a sluggish, wet pound every few seconds. Consciousness was slowly being stripped from Takkris, layer by layer he felt it coming. The inevitable, dreamless sleep that wouldn’t be too different from dying, and yet he knew that death was very real if the tellis leaf wasn’t extracted from his stomach before it poisoned him. He had to hope that he would wake up, that the tellis leaf had absorbed enough to wake him before Amman had predicted. Though he was once at peace with death before, he had one final act to commit before his demise. He wanted to live if only to see it come to pass. I am going to put you down like the filthy beast you are Amman. I will kill you for what you have done. He felt comforted by his murderous aspirations as the last layer of his waking mind was flayed and cast aside, dropping him into a dreamless, drug-induced sleep.

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