A Rough Beginning
Chapter 6 - No Hope
Aeowynn shivered in the pale moonlight. It was almost as cold on the beach as it was on the ship. Her thoughts were dull, and her stomach wouldn’t stop doing flips. It seemed like forever since she had been on land and she hardly knew how to walk anymore. She looked down at the iron enclosing her ankle and scratched at the callus that had formed there. It didn't bleed anymore when it bit into her skin. She could hardly recall not having worn it. Looking up she saw the thirty or so slaves chained in clumps around her. She didn't bother to get to know them anymore. It’s not like they stayed around for any amount of time.
The female Orc, Sharn, that had comforted her after Bryn had been killed was busy talking to some slaves a little way away. It hardly hurt to think about him anymore. Bryn had been her twin brother, but that was a lifetime ago in a world that didn't exist for her anymore. That was before slavery. She could still see Bryn’s lifeless eyes staring up at her while his blood spilled out of the wound Xugug had made. With clarity, she remembered the splash his body had made after Sharn had thrown it overboard.
Unable to sleep she watched as Sharn walked away, leaving the gnome and the strange cat-girl talking together. She remembered when they were captured; the fire-haired cat-girl had seemed like she didn’t want to accept her new role as a slave and had almost sent a few Orcs overboard. That was a long time ago when she still had hopes of escaping. The gnome was newer and spent most of her time bailing out the water that would splash over the side of the ship. She often heard a tune being hummed by the gnome as she worked. It was comforting in some way and left her feeling a little stronger every time she heard it.
There was another girl chained to them as well. A shiver went down her spine as she looked over to the crouching figure. The other slaves had said she was from the elven folk, but she had never heard of them before. For the most part, she looked like a normal human girl; even the pointy ears didn’t seem that out of place. It was when she looked at you with her pitch black eyes that you knew something was different. They were like deep pools of black that seemed like they would consume you. It was like looking into the sky on a dark night only to realize that it was looking back at you. There was a small commotion and she noticed that Sharn was back, talking with the guards this time and handing them mugs of something. Her heart was filled with dread. She knew that Orcs would often abuse the slaves when they were drunk. Something was different, though. They were still laughing when one of them sat down abruptly and looked about like he was dazed. The others slowly sank down and soon fell over. Aeowynn sat up jostling the chain at her leg. What was going on? Sharn rummaged around, got up, walked briskly over to the other slaves and started doing something with their feet. Was she taking their chains off?
Everything happened fast after that. She stood up and watched as first the gnome and then the cat-girl was freed. The slaves continued to pass what must have been the key between them. Suddenly a dark shadow loomed behind Sharn. Xugug! Despair filled her as he confronted the Orc rebel. He bellowed when the cat-girl sprung forward and wrapped a chain around his leg. Slashing at Sharn with a knife, the obviously drunk brute howled in rage. She punched him square in the face and they both fell down. Orcs from the tents started to run towards them as someone yelled out that the slaves were escaping in the ships. Aeowynn turned to look at the ships but a wall of fog was moving in obscuring her view. Seconds seemed like hours. Slaves ran screaming as the Orcs from the camp started recapturing them. She realized that she was screaming too when Xugug stormed towards her. Over his shoulder, she could see Sharn and the three other slaves run towards the forest. The elf was being pulled along by the gnome while the cat-girl followed after. She screamed at them for help. Sharn turned to look back just as Xugug grabbed her by the throat, lifting her up. Choking for air she pulled feebly at his giant hand encircling her throat.
“Shut up you worthless being!” He yelled as he drove his fist into her stomach. Gasping for air, she fell to the ground.
He growled at her, “You will know nothing but pain tonight.” Looking around at some of the other slaves, he continued. “You will all learn your place!”
He lifted his heavy boot and kicked at her. Pain blossomed in her ribs. Sobbing she brought her knees up into the fetal position. As the blows came, tears streamed down her face. She could just make out Sharn disappearing into the forest. Any remaining shred of hope died as everything turned black.
As the sun rose Aeowynn lay unable to move. Her breaths came in short painful gasps. Blood mixed with mud as it ran out of various cuts. Xugug had held true to his word and had beat her and some of the other slaves for most of the night. The blows only stopped when he realized that he wanted more ale, and left bellowing for it. Orcs were starting to come by and haul the slaves off to different places to work. She could hear Knurig, the slavemaster, negotiating with them for silver. Not even one Orc glanced at her or the other beaten slaves as they would be close to worthless now. A green-skinned Orc warrior flanked by two others approached.
“Still selling slaves, Knurig?”
“Of course, Tog. Whatever brings silver to my purse brings me happiness.”
Tog glanced over to the beaten slaves. “You’re still using Xugug to ship them I see. You do know he’s damaging your merchandise?”
“True, but I take it out of his share. A few lost won’t hurt.”
Tog walked over to Aeowynn. “What’s her story?”
“Just a worthless ship slave.” The slavemaster jumped ahead and grabbed her by the hair, hauling her up. “Stand up you miserable creature! Don’t you know whose addressing you? He is the king’s son!”
“Calm down Knurig.” The Orc prince reached out and took her chin in his hands. She winced as he gripped a fresh bruise. Her eyes flashed up to meet him and he relaxed his grip. “I’m going to take this one. I have need of someone that can cook and clean. Here is silver for the rest of them as well. Clean them up, get them fed, properly, and let them tend to their wounds. Also, don’t let Xugug near them again.”
After the silver was exchanged the slavemaster unchained Aeowynn and gave her a shove towards Tog. She stumbled and almost fell in front of him, but he caught her, steadied her and spoke to his two companions. “Fetch the horses Magra.”
Magra led three horses close, and Tog swiftly picked her up and lifted her onto his horse.
“I think you would have trouble walking back to Smallwater. Can you hold on without falling off?”
She nodded and grabbed at the saddle horn. The four of them made their way up the path towards the village.
Chapter 7 - Servant
With every single bump, Aeowynn felt like crying out as her bruises and sore muscles were jostled. Still, it beat having to walk. She glanced sideways at Tog. The sides of his head were shaven clean and he had a black tattoo running from his left eye down his cheek. He had the usual two tusks protruding from his jaw that most Orcs have. Most of the Orc warriors she had seen displayed their conquests in some way, either through tattoos or various bones ornamentation. He looked different. She wasn’t sure what to think of her situation. She had never met any Orc like Tog and had never been treated like this since she had been captured.
It wasn’t long before they came to Smallwater, a small, half-burned out village with a small brook running through it. Orc warriors lounged here and there while various humans scurried from one task to another. Tog led them up to a thatch-roofed house and motioned for her to dismount. Summoning strength, she managed to dismount without falling on her face.
“Magra, Verthag, take the horses to the stable and see them fed and watered. We will ride out soon in search of the escaped slaves.” Turning to her, he said. “Girl, go into the house. You should find things to help you get cleaned up. I will send for some clothes. There will be bread, meat and cheese inside as well. I assume you haven’t eaten much on the ship, so take it easy. Get as much rest as you can. There will be someone coming by later to prepare supper. You will help them as they require. Do you understand?”
She trembled as she heard the words he spoke. “L- lord. Yes, lord. I understand. I-” She quickly trailed off.
“And if you are to serve me, I will need to know how to address you. What is your name? I can’t keep calling you ‘girl’.”
“My name? Uh, my name is Aeowynn, lord.”
He replied with a softer tone. “Right then, Aeowynn. I will see you later.”
Tog, turned and strode off to where Magra took the horses. She looked around. For the first time in her existence as a slave, no one else was around. No one was watching her. Then she remembered the mention of food. She quickly opened the door to the house and stepped inside. It was a quaint house, similar to what she grew up in. Thatched roof and wooden walls, it was of sturdy construction even if it was very plain. There was an open fire pit in the middle of the room with vents above it to allow the smoke to escape. A couple of beds were pushed up against one of the walls and there was a table near the fire pit with wooden chairs pulled up to it. Her eyes saw a bundle wrapped in cloth on the table. Shaking with emotion, she unwrapped a loaf of crusty bread, a wedge of cheese and some smoked ham. She let out a sob and started breaking off pieces of bread, shoving them into her mouth. She grabbed at the cheese but remembered what Tog had told her about taking it easy. She saw a knife and carefully cut some pieces off the cheese wedge. There was a knock at the door.
“Dear, are you in there?” The door opened and a human woman poked her head in. “My, aren’t you a dirty thing. I’ve got some clothes for you. Master Tog wanted you cleaned up and dressed. There is some wash water in the other room. He mentioned he would be back around supper. Hey miss, are you crying? Oh dear, you must be one of the new ones off the ship. I’ve heard terrible things about that. Terrible things. You may find that master Tog runs things a bit differently. He is the king’s son. Well, I guess our new king’s son.”
She continued listening to the older woman while she ate, tears rolling down her face. Siùsan sat with her for a while, trying to comfort her.
“Ok dear, it’s time you get washed up. I have to be off, other duties to take care of, you know, maybe I can find some time to help you out later. Master said you were to rest, and I can see why now. You look bruised to the bone. The names Siùsan. Rest now, the work will come soon enough.” She left, still chattering to herself, leaving Aeowynn in silence once again.
With food in her belly, she found the washbasin and began scraping years of grime off of her. She would need to find a river to do a proper wash, but this would be good enough for now. The fresh cuts stung as she washed them. Her years at the convent had taught her many forms of healing. She had to change the water in the basin no less than three times while she washed. After peeling the horrid rags off her body, she threw them into the fire. As she watched them burn she found an emotion she had not felt in a long time. Anger. It was something she had buried long ago. Being angry with someone who could kill you in an instant and on a whim was a pointless endeavour. She was angry at Xugug. For capturing her. For killing her brother. For treating her like she was worthless. She believed him for so long that she almost couldn’t push it aside.
“I will kill him.” She spoke the words aloud. The words were so simple, yet they built the foundation on which the flame of anger was burning. She turned towards the new clothes Siùsan had brought her. They were simple but they were clean. To Aeowynn they felt like royal velvet. It took her a little while for her rough hands to tie up the tunic but she managed. All of a sudden she was tired. Exhausted to the very core of her being. It was all she could do to climb into a bed. A real bed! It was a sensation that she hardly remembered. The last of her old rags burnt up in a puff of smoke but she was already asleep.
Aoewynn woke up with a start to the clatter of wooden bowls being set on the table. Siùsan was busy preparing for supper.
“There you are little one. Did you get some rest? I didn’t want to wake you quite yet, but since you’re up, I could really use a hand with this stew.”
Scrambling up she quickly tied her hair back and took over stirring the giant pot over the fire. “Oh Siùsan. I can hardly understand what’s going on. I feel like this is a dream. Did I die? Is this the end of days?”
“Oh no, dear. This is Pelonia.”
“Yes. The Kingdom of Pelonia. And watch that stew girl, you’re letting it burn.”
She resumed stirring. “I’ve never heard of it before.”
“Well, it’s where we are. It’s where the Orcs are now too. King Gerould is far away and e’en the Abbott has stopped sending his monks. Of course, I don’t blame ‘im. The Orcs string ‘em up as fast as they catch ‘em. The poor buggers. Trying to convert the lot of ‘em. The Orcs don’t respond well to that kind of thing. With ‘em it’s all Khanos this and Kraxris that. That’s their gods. Very different than our Valor, praise his name. Of course, the Abbot would say they worship the Unnameable one. Oh well. Here I’m rambling on and on, and oh dear, I hear horses outside. That must be Master Tog. Are you able to serve stew, dear? I’m fairly certain that’s what Master Tog will want of you. Just stand back here and do what they ask. Keep quiet. Here’s the pitcher of mead. Most of us other folk sleep in old man Tomas’ house across the way and down a ways. I guess I’ll see you there tonight. Hurry there quickly after you’re done here. You don’t want to catch a drunk Orc in the dark. Alright dear, I’m off to prepare the next meal. I hope to Valor you’ve been taught manners.”
Aeowynn stood stunned in the onslaught of information, almost forgetting to stir the pot in front of her. The door opened again and Tog strode in with his two companions. He took his sword belt off and tossed it in the corner with his shield.
“Good evening Aeowynn. You look refreshed. I trust your day was well?” He remarked, glancing over at her. She nodded in return.
He sat down with Magra and Verthag and held his bowl out towards her. She gave them each a large helping of stew. She couldn’t follow Siùsan’s advice to be quiet, though.
“L-lord, uh Master sir, did you find them? The other slaves?’
He took a spoonful of stew and held out his cup, ignoring her question. Feeling flushed she picked up the pitcher of mead and poured a mug for each of the Orcs. After taking a long drink he set his cup down and slowly stood up. She shrank back against the wall. Why did she have to open her mouth? What did she care about those escaped slaves anyway? He walked over to her, reached beside her and selected a wooden bowl, spoon and cup from the sideboard. Turning, he walked to the pot and filled the bowl with steaming meat and vegetables. He set them down by an empty chair and sat back down in his chair.
“Aeowynn, please, sit and eat. The stew is not bad today.”
“Lord, I, I can’t…”
“I insist. You can’t tell me that you don’t desire it? I may have tusks but I won’t bite.”
“That’s not it, lord. A slave is…”
“An unfortunate thing, Aeowynn. Now sit and eat. Please.”
She sat down, took the spoon in one hand, filled it and brought it to her mouth. It took every ounce of her strength to not shovel it all in at once.
“Do you believe in the gods, Aeowynn?” He asked after a few minutes.
“I believe in Tamos, lord. Or at least I thought I did.”
“A single deity? Interesting. That’s similar to the Pelonian people. They believe in a god named Valor. ‘The one true god’ is what they call him. Does Tamos count himself as the only true god as well?”
“Yes, lord. Tamos guides the pure away from the evils of Arzeth, deceiver and destroyer.” Aeowynn’s teachings from the convent came back to her quickly.
“Ah, an evil opposer. The Pelonians also have an evil being although they just refer to him as the Unnameable one. You no longer believe in your god?”
“I’m not sure, lord. I haven’t said the rituals in a long time. The prayers. I’m fairly certain he’s forgotten about me.”
“I see. Do you know what us Orcs believe?”
“Uhh, Khanos and Kraxis, lord. They are brother and sister and rule from the Inferno. At least, that is what I’ve heard Captain Xugug and some of the others say.’ Her voice faltered when she mentioned the cruel Orc.
“That’s right. They lead us into battle. When we die with a weapon in our hands and blood on our brow we gain a seat in the hall in the Inferno. But not all Orcs follow the siblings. Some follow the Pantheon of Shadows, others follow Memona. There are others as well.”
He didn’t ask any questions, so for a time they ate in silence until he spoke. “I found them.”
She was confused for a moment until she realized he was talking about the escaped slaves.
“They were lost in the north woods. It is interesting that an Orc decided to join them. Do you know them Aeowynn? Were they on the ship with you?”
She grimaced with mention of the ship but nodded. “They were on the ship, but I don’t really know them. We never talked. Well, Sharn, the Orc you mentioned, did once when… when… my brother died.” She managed to keep her composure, barely.
Tog looked up at her for a moment. “Aeowynn, I am truly sorry about your brother.” He raised his cup as Magra and Verthag raised theirs as well.
“Ang Gijak-Ishi.” They said in unison and took a long drink.
Aeowynn sat there with shining eyes, not really knowing what they said, but knowing what they meant. “Thank you, lord.” It took immense effort not start crying again. “What is their punishment, if I may ask? For the captured slaves.”
Tog laughed at that. “Punishment? No, no, I did not capture them either. I’m sure we will learn of their whereabouts soon, though. Do you believe in destiny?”
“Yes. The idea that you are fated to be someone. To go somewhere. To discover something.”
“I, I don’t think so. Well, I was taught that Tamor guides us in our choices. So I guess not. We make our own choices.”
“Do we? Do we really have a choice in what we do? In where we go? Did you, when you were captured?” She coloured at that comment. “Do you think I have a choice?”
“Of course, lord! You are the prince, right?”
“Prince? Well, we’ll see about that. I am the king’s son, yes. My father doesn’t always see things the same way as me. As for choice? Maybe. I suppose I do have more choices than you. For example, I can choose what I want to eat, at least from what’s available. I can choose when I want to take a walk in the woods. But can I choose to leave here and return to my home country? No. Can I choose to build a house, till a field and settle down? No, I cannot. I can choose these as much as you can choose them. The real burning question is if we accept the path in front of us? Do we stride forward with our heads held up? Or do we kick and scream like a child? Either way, destiny seems to have her way.”
“Yes, lord.” She didn’t really know how to answer him.
Just then there was a knock on the door and an Orc dressed in riding leathers came in and addressed the Orc prince.
“Tog, we’ve spotted them heading here, towards the town.”
“Excellent, Dakgu. Have some men bring supplies to the storehouse. Clothes, some leathers and a few other trinkets. Take most of the chests of silver out though. There is no need for that to wander off. Also, make sure the men give them a wide berth. Let them pass through the town untouched.”
“At once, Tog.” And with that the Orc left.
“Turning back to Aoewynn he added. “See, destiny is the most interesting thing to watch.”
That night Aeowynn marveled at what had all transpired that day. She had started it as a broken and beat slave, and ended serving the oddest Orc, no, the oddest being she had ever encountered. She was still a slave, true, but Tog’s words had made her think. With a shaky breath she knelt and started the ritual gestures she had learned a long time ago, calling upon Tamos to guide her. She wasn’t sure if he would listen, or even care. Maybe her heart would not be pure enough. Her pledge to kill Xugug still burned bright inside her. The idea of destiny that Tog spoke of ate at her years of blind, devoted training in the convent. She finished her prayers and lay down, ready for sleep. As she drifted off questions swirled in her head.
Why was Tog treating her this way?
What did Tog want with the four escaped slaves?
What was her destiny?