This is a fantasy story filled with mighty creatures, wicked sorcerers, magical weapons, and of course beautiful women with long shining hair and a true Hero, controlling his women with an iron fist. Well, apart from the fact that he's not very heroic, and that the women mostly use their cunning ways to disobey him when they do not outright turn the tables on him...
*** Chapter One. The Wanderer and his first slave ***
Imagine the gloomiest city you have ever visited, or even seen. Then add incredible tall, dour, featureless buildings. Cover it with a thick cloud of cloying, sickly green-black smoke. Add towering, bare and ebony mountains. Cut it with a mournful, almost molasses-like river. And the piece de resistance, a population of humorless and cruel people; cold to the bone as they went somberly about in their gray cloaks, like they did in the City of the Dead. Yes, this was it. Welcome to Braghia, city of a thousand disappointments.
Braghia, the city of shadows, is renowned throughout the lands as having the best slave market to be found on the Olthan Sea. And, despite not having seen any before, I could not help agree. It has been claimed that the Gods made seven times seven times seven races of Men, and a fair number of them must have been represented here. Small, lithe Mariners, the elegant Narmosh, wiry Highlanders, Dust Men, and even some Forest Dwellers slowly wilting as they were being kept away from their precious soil, and many more besides. There were strong, healthy men, prisoners of war having made the unmanly choice between drowning and bondage. Beautiful women of all colors and shapes, with long shimmering hair down their backs, bred to the arts of pleasing men, or raided from their homes. I found it all disgusting, but nevertheless I was here to purchase one. The problem was, I just did not know who, and why.
The slave market was one of the few places in Braghia where one did not feel the claustrophobic pressure of the narrow, winding streets and the incredibly tall buildings, some rising more than twenty stories into the air. Worse perhaps, it was a place where the noise and jostling and stink and voices of a crowd of customers, vendors, and merchandise made me want to retch. It did not matter; whether in a shaded alley or a thick crowd, a knife could still be slipped into my back by a firedancer.
From the most alluring queen to the oldest, disease-ridding wretch, there were slaves available for any need and purse, and the local Twilighters were circling around like buzzards considering their next morsel. How could I find the one the prophecy had urged me to buy in all this? And would I be able to stand the impact of the perpetual, raw misery of the goods on display without fleeing.
Then, after a few minutes I found myself feeling conflicted emotions as I passed from holding pen to leashing post to metal cage. On one hand the despair of the slaves affected me, but on the other... Why did I feel so strange watching a prospective buyer examine a woman on a leash like she was a horse? What attracted me to this display of disregard for humanity? As I stood there, my ears red from shame, I heard another potential buyer discussing the advantages and disadvantages of a slave with her owner.
"This slave does not please neither my senses, nor my eyes," the customer said. He was a native Twilighter, and with his pale white skin and jet dark hair hidden in his deep gray robes he did not look like a kind, welcoming master. Few of them did.
"But look at those big black eyes!" The owner held the slave, a young woman locked in a cast iron cage with a few other wretches, by her leather collar, forcing her face close to the bars. With his free hand he pointed at her eyes. She looked like one of the Sea People, the vast, olive-skinned majority of the lands to which her owner also belonged. She looked like it, but she was not. There was something curious about her, apart from the fairly obvious things such as...
"I told you, if I want someone to dally with, I will find an attractive, well trained specimen. A Green-eye, taught to fear the touch of men, for example. This... thing will be set to menial work, if she can be trusted, with that thieves' cross marring her face."
"But that is the only blemish on an otherwise perfect skin. Look at the golden texture of it, sir!" The owner seemed oblivious to the rancor of the customer.
"Yes, on a bald head, nonetheless. She is revolting."
The aforementioned big black eyes fixed in fury on her tormentors. I drew closer, somewhat intrigued by all of this.
"It will grow out," the vendor said, and added: "Seven krakens."
"I'll give you three," the tall, pale customer added.
I felt my pouch, for some reason that I could not explain. I had exactly five krakens and seven spiked wheels left to me in the whole world.
"She's got a lovely smi-" the owner started, but then stopped short.
"She does?" The sarcasm dripped off the customer's voice like puss from a festering wound. "Then let me see it."
"No, never mind," the vendor said hastily. "Six krakens?"
"Yes, I do mind. Let me see the perfect teeth of this pretty thing!"
The young woman tried to pull away, and the official would have let her, but the customer stuck one hand into the cage and grabbed her neck, using the other to force her mouth open despite her vicious protests. I was now just a few feet away, and could cleary see the blinding white, even ivory of her mouth, marred only by a hole in the middle where her two front teeth should have been. With a display of ferocity the small, slender slave snapped out of the Braghian's grip and used her incisors to bite down on his hand, making him pull it away, clutching at his wound. With an oath he pushed the cage with all his might, making the woman tumble backwards, before he stomped off in furious anger.
The official swore and gave the woman who was now struggling to rise a tongue-lashing while he loosened a leather whip from his belt. Her eyes narrowed, her face fixed in a grin caught somewhere between fear and resolute determination.
"I-If you put another blemish on her, I will deduct a kraken from what I am willing to offer," I replied.
The pair of them became aware of me now, the woman's face turning even more conflicted with emotion. But when her eyes met mine I felt a sensation of... Connection, maybe? A tinkle of recognition? Attraction? That beneath the scars, baldness, and missing teeth there waited the most beautiful woman in the world ready to spring forth into full bloom. Or if not the most beautiful woman in the world, then at least the woman I would hold in such a high esteem. There was no question now as to the true reason I had been sent to this slave market. I had to have her.
"And how much are you willing to offer, sir? Snow Man, are you? From up North then, I guess?" He put down his whip and smiled at me, as he started making an professional effort to become friendly. "Cold there now, as always? Never been there myself, though."
"Yes, I am," I replied. "Just arrived in this fine city. A little confused by all these tall buildings they have here and the crowds in this place..."
We chatted a little, the purpose of which was to make the other feel bad about being harsh in the upcoming bartering. The shadow of the sky reaching, black Tyrant's Tower passed slowly across the market, letting everyone know that in the end they were all his slaves. The dark gray walls of the city had seen many a poor sinner being hunted down and punished by the Shades, the sinister sorcerer-guards who maintained a cruel order in Braghia.
"Now, about this beauty here," he finally said and we turned to look at the slave. She stood upright, looking as proud as any caged, little woman can possibly do under the gaze of two big men.
"Her owner wants a full dragon for this one, but I feel bad for her and know you will take good care of her, sir, so I will let you have her for seven krakens."
"Not too bad," I replied. "If she were whole, that is. Let's deduct one kraken each for the baldness, the thieves' cross, and the teeth. I'll give you four."
"All right, I'll deduct one kraken for the cross," he replied with a smile as the woman stared blackly at me. I did not like that very much, and neither did I like words that were coming out of my mouth, but I had to get the price down to match my purse. "But you can just put a wig on her, and her mouth can stay shut, can't it? Nothing like a silent woman, eh?" We laughed, but I groaned inside as the woman's eye flung black fire at me.
"All right, add the wig. But if she can't smile, then I will have to look at this silent frown for years and years instead," I gestured at her mask of fury.
"Then we split the last kraken in half," he said and extended his hand towards me, "for a speechless and smile-less woman. Five krakens and six spiked wheels."
"Deal," I shook his hand. I had just bought myself a slave.
Then, five minutes later, I was left with a single spiked wheel in my pouch, and a small, angrily-looking woman beside me.
"Sure you don't want a leash for her?" The official looked at me with something approaching sympathy in his eyes, now that he had his money. "My friend, for this one I would strongly recommend it..."
I shook my head and awkwardly walked back into the vast maze that is Braghia with the woman beside me. She was indeed very short, and her bald head bobbed so low that it would have fitted perfectly under my chin if she had wanted to stay close to me. She did not want this, however. She was slender, almost famished-looking, but her body still managed to retain a somewhat feminine aspect to it, with nice, rounded hips and noticeable breasts.
The strange thing about her was her baldness. It did not look at if her hair had been shaved off, neither that she had some sort of disease that had made her lose it. It was just a hairless head. I had heard stories of sorceresses whose powers was tied to their hair, that the longer their hair the more powerful they were, and that the way to defeat them was to cut it off. But then I had heard many stories.
"So," she said casually as we wandered aimlessly, as I unfortunately had no idea where my hostel was in this maze, up a relatively wide, busy street with where there was a market, and where offers to buy fruits and fish and vegetables and even meat were announced in almost surreal quietness. "So, you usually buy damaged slaves?"
"No, of course not," I replied hastily. "What's your name. Mine is-"
"First time, then. I should be proud, I guess. Honored, even."
"Look, I did not mea-"
"I am your slave now, then?" She tugged at her leather collar and look up at me with narrow eyes. We stopped walking. People around us were shying away from her white slave robes, or maybe it was the thieves' cross that did it.
"Yes, but wait until we get back to, eh, the Gutted Cod, on Shade Wharf, that's the hostel where-"
"I must obey you, then, and be under your control? I have no privacy, no freedom? That's what 'slave' means, isn't it?" Her hands moved to her hips, which I was sure had to be a danger sign.
"Well, yes, but-"
"What luck I have to have been bought by you!" Even I could tell she did not mean that. "But, you have to be careful."
"People rich enough to buy slaves are considered plum targets in this city."
"But you were cheap," I protested in my stupidity.
"By the blasted desert, yes I was, wasn't I?" Now she looked interested over my shoulder. "But still old Chark the marrowpricker would like to put his dagger into your back, I see."
"Who?" I spun around and looked wildly about me. The people closest to us looked exasperated at me, but that was it.
"See that man in the dark green tunic over there?" the slave's hand pointed to a short, wicked-looking man buying one of those small, fried and intensely spicy fish-on-a-stick that they sell in Braghia, the food being one of the few redeeming qualities of the place.
"Is that Shark what's-his-name? How do you know him? What did I do to him?"
"I have a thieves' cross on my forehead, you know, and I know many people in the city. I think what offends him is that your money is not in your purse."
"But I don't have any-"
"Let's watch him closely to see if he let's up who he's working with?"
That was good advice. So I looked at the man in the green tunic. I watched him pay for his fish, eat it, bow in compliment to the woman who had made it, and take a look at the other stalls nearby before he sauntered away. I could see no secret signs or dubious eye contacts with anyone. When I turned around to tell my slave, she, of course, was long gone.
I arrived at the Gutted Cod just as night fell, an actually quite decent hostel on the docks of Braghia. The staff had the characteristic unfriendly, yet courteous, behavior of Twilighters, and the room was clean. Hungry, my last spiked wheel spent on a frugal meal on the street, I stumbled wearily into my room. Everyone I had asked direction to the hostel had told me that it would take me ten minutes to get here, every twenty-something of the unwilling, reserved, almost hostile one of them.
I was angry and frustrated. The slave, of course, could not be found, even though I had searched for her. I had traveled for five weeks to get to Braghia and buy her, and now she was gone. My mission would not be completed now. I was a failure and I hit the brick walls in fury.
Deep inside me a little voice told me that she had every right to try to escape her bondage to me, but I never was one to listen to reason. Yes, she was my slave! Because, I muttered to myself, I had bought her! It was her duty to obey me, to meekly follow me around!
These angry thoughts had kept my feet moving for the last few hours, but as I lay on the hard bed in the tiny room and rested, my feelings changed. Slave. For a moment I had owned a woman with big, black eyes. Still owned her, technically. Right now she could have been kneeling by my bed, her face to the floor, all in awe of me. I breathed in and out deeply and shook my head. Earlier today I had cursed the existence of the slave markets, and now I dreamed about having a woman on a leash...
I sat up and drank a cup of water from the bucket that was filled by the maid every morning. 'Stop thinking these thoughts!' I told myself. But I couldn't. That woman had to be mine! Bald and branded and toothless... Her place was at my feet!
"But you are gone," I whispered quietly, knowing that the memory of her would stay with me for a long time.
Then, suddenly, I was interrupted by a sound coming from the small window high up on the wall. Fearing a firedancer had tracked me, I grabbed the ladle of the bucket in my right hand and tore the curtain aside. A pair of big, black eyes, irritated and weary, met mine.
"You?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," came her annoyed voice back to me from outside the small window. I had a room on the first floor, because they were by far the cheapest ones. The Twilighters of Braghia all aspired to live as high up as possible to show their social standing making it shameful, and for me affordable, to live on the ground.
"You came back?"
"Listen, can we discuss this outside? How long do you think a branded thief will be left in peace looking into your window?"
One minute later we stood face to face at the corner of the hostel, or as face to face as was possible when she was about a foot shorter than me. It was night now, and the yellow flames of the whale-oil lamps did not do much to illuminate the darkness, but I could see that she was wearing a colored (blue, perhaps?) coat now, instead of the white slave robes I had seen her in the last time, and that a hood covered her thieves' cross.
"Why did you return, slave?" I asked. Why did I add the 'slave', now? She flinched.
"I am your slave?" Her voice was incredulous.
"Yes," I breathed deeply.
"Who are you?" She uttered the words in staccato, putting stress on the middle word of the sentence. "Where do you come from?"
I hesitated. Feeling an urgent need to control the situation, I shook my head. No... "Why did you return?"
"Look, You want to own me, and control my life? For real?"
I paused. To control every aspect of her life. What she should wear, what she ate, when she woke and when she was allowed to sleep... What a horrible idea! Oh, and what a sweet, sweet idea. Had I ever felt these kinds of emotions before? Thinking back, a lot of conflicted memories suddenly became clear...
I realized she was still waiting for an answer as my thoughts flew wildly between experiences with the women I had known in my life.
"Why did you return?" I repeated, not because I insisted on getting my answer, but because I was not ready to answer her question.
She sighed and looked a me from under her hood. With an almost unwilling movement she grabbed the cloth and jerked it backwards, revealing a head covered in shadow.
"Yes?" she said.
"Why did you return?" I repeated, confused.
"Because of this."
She sighed and rolled her eyes. Then she stepped closer to me and bowed her head. "This."
Her head was not covered in shadow, like the diffuse, weak lamplight had lead me to believe. It was covered by thick, black hair. Barely. The hair was less than a quarter of an inch long, but now that I realized it was there, I saw it made all the difference to her appearance.
Her head, which had resembled that of a gnome and had made her firm eyebrows dominate her face while her ears had seemed to stick out, was far better proportioned now. She was lovely, I realized as she raised those enchanting eyes of hers to look at me. Long eyelashes, so long that a gaze sent demurely up at you from a hundred paces would make your heart skip more beats than a drunken, amateur drummer.
But of course she did not gaze demurely at me or look at me in any other manner that could be interpreted seductively. Her face had an irritated air as she took a step back. "See now?"
"You have hair."
"Well spotted!" She clapped as briefly as possible to even create an irony of applause. Silence fell.
"And?" I asked.
"And? You don't think that is strange?"
"Well, yes of course, but-"
"No buts! Look here, I have lived on the streets for three years since I lost my position at the scullery back home; you know, since someone very smart figured out my baldness must be caused by a contagious disease. And now, with this cross on my face, I can never get another job. So my future is to keep stealing to feed myself, then be sentenced to slavery, and escape from the idiots who buy me. And all this in this filthy, ugly city! Do you, dearest owner, think that is any way to lead a life?"
"Well, no. But I don't see how-"
"Do you know anything of magic?"
"Some. I am a Wanderer."
"Which is a fancy name for a vagabond, I guess," she shrugged, "but it beats my professional title." Then she ran her hand over her head. "Twenty-two years, and never before a single strand of hair on my head. Never. Then I met you."
"Yes. I felt the prickling in my scalp from the moment you appeared. Just after I made you fall for the easy trick I pulled, I felt my head, and there it was. Since then I have been thinking..."
"Something happened to me when I was with you. You understand? My life is a misery, and here is a chance to escape from it. To feel magic. If I stay with you. As a slave, if need be!" She narrowed her eyes.
"Oh." I hesitated. Then I added, "You know, I have come from the far north just to find you."
"Yes. Well, it was like this... I was given a prophecy. A vision in the morning frost of the Lake of Seeing back at the Cloister where I lived. About journey to the south, to the City of Shadows, and a slave to be purchased. That is the short of how it was explained, though a friend of mine suggested the alternative interpretation that I was to spend the rest of my life as a mallard. But the slave from the prophecy? You."