Chapter1

Sold Into Slavery, I Make the March to Urik

I took another step. The lash struck again across my back. I straightened in the slave hood, my head thrown back by the stroke. The chain on my neck jerked forward and I stumbled in the sand. My hands clenched in the manacles, fastened at my belly by the loop of chain. My legs, failed to find purchase in the fine sand, were caked with sand and sweat. I lost my balance and fell. I tried to rise. But the chain before me dragged forward and I fell again. Twice more the lash struck. I recovered my balance. Again I waded through the sands toward Urik.

For twenty days had we marched. Some thought it a hundred. Many had lost count.

More than two hundred and fifty men had been originally in the slave chain.

I did not know how many now trekked with the march. The chain was now much heavier than it had been, for it, even with several sections removed, was carried by far fewer men. To be an arena slave, it is said, one must be strong. Only the strong, it is said, ever reach Urik. Fewer even than that find themselves fighting for their lives in the arena. And many of those end their journey; face down in a pool of their own gore.

In the chain, we wore slave hoods. These had been fastened on us at the foot of the wall of the city. Before mine had been locked under my chin I had seen the silver desert in its dawn. The sky in the east had seemed cool and gray. It was difficult to believe then, in the cool of that morning, as early as late spring that the surface temperatures of the terrain we would traverse would be within hours better than one hundred and fifty degrees.

Our feet, earlier, had been wrapped in leather sheathing, it reaching, in anticipation of the burning sands. The moons, at that time, had been still above the horizon. Rocks on the desert, and the sheer walls of the city, looming above us, shone with dew, common in the early morning, to be burned off in the first hour of the sun. Children, and nomads, sometimes rise early, to lick the dew from the rocks. The slave caravan master speculated that many of us would enjoy better fortune in this desert as opposed to the arena. The collar was locked about my throat.

+ + +

An hour before dawn I had been aroused. On the cool stones, on the straw, I stirred. On my throat was a heavy cell collar, with a ring; attached to the ring was some fifteen feet of chain, it attached to a plate near our heads. The plates were no more than five inches apart. When we had been placed in the cell a tiny lamp had been put on a shelf by the door. The stones were broad, heavy blocks, cool, wet in places, over which lay a scattering, of damp straw. We were perhaps a hundred feet below the city. The cell had not been much cleaned. There was a smell, as of humanoids, and of other creatures. The heavy door, beams of wood, sheathed with plates of iron, all together some eight inches thick; the hasps were flung over the staples, two, heavy, and two locks were shut on the door. At the top of the door, some six inches by ten inches, barred, was an observation window. The guards looked in. I checked my own collar and chain, and the linkage at the ring and plate. I was secured. I looked at the tiny lamp on the shelf near the door. It smoked, and burned oil

Five men, two with lamps, entered the cell. A loop of chain was placed about my belly. My wrists were manacled before me, the manacles fixed with a ring in the chain. Two of the men, one on each side, then thrust a bar behind my back and before my elbows, by means of which, together, they could control me. The fifth man unsnapped the collar from my throat, and dropped it, with its chain, to the stones. I was pulled to my feet.

By means of the bar, not looking back, I was thrust from the cell.

We had stood, a chain of slaves being readied for the march to Urik, and death; presaged by fleeting glory before the roaring crowds of Urik for some, but death nonetheless.

The moons were not yet below the horizon. It was cool, even chilly at that hour in the late spring. Dawn, like a shadowy axe blade, curved gray in the east. A rider, on crodlu, was moving toward us, on the sand about the edge of the wall. The sand veil concealed his countenance, and a length of it fluttered behind him as he rode, and the wide burnoose lifted and swelled behind him. His visage was hidden, but his size was not; this then would be the Scion of the Anu, Akkanu, and cousin to the one I had killed, he who had identified me and paid bounty; surely he was here to revel in my lamentable state of a chained slave.

Men beside me lifted the chain and collar. The rider pulled the crodlu up beside me, drawing back on the single rein. The collar was snapped about my throat. I felt the weight of the chain.

“Greetings, Knossus,” said the rider.

“You rise early, Akkanu,” I replied through the haze of mounting rage.

“I would not miss your departure,” he answered.

“Doubtless in this there is triumph for you.”

“Yes, I had thought that too. Now, seeing you in chains, it is something else entirely. There is triumph, but, too, regret. One gains revenge, one loses an enemy.”

The men of the merchant, he whose slave caravan would transport us to Urik, were fastening slave hoods on the prisoners of the chain. It is not a particularly cruel hood, like many, but utilitarian. A hooded prisoner, even if not bound, is almost totally helpless. He cannot see to escape; he cannot see to attack; he cannot be sure, usually, even of the number and position of his captors, whether they face him, or are attentive, or such; sometimes a hooded prisoner, even unbound, is told simply to kneel, and that if he moves, he will be slain; some captors, to their amusement, leave such prisoners, returning hours later, to find them in the same place; the prisoner, of course, does not know if they have merely moved a hundred feet away or so, to rest or make camp, all he knows is that if he does move a foot from his place he may feel a blade pass suddenly through his body. In the hood, too, of course, the prisoner does not know who might strike or abuse him. He is alone in the hood, with his confusion, his ignorance, his unfocused misery, his anguish, helpless.

Of course, the hood serves to conceal the route from the prisoners of the chain. Thus, even if they thought they might live for a time in the desert, in trying to flee, they would have little idea of even the direction to take in their flight; the chance of their finding their way back to civilization, to the twin life givers of residuum and water, would be small.

Fortunately, the hood would protect our faces from the worst ravages of the razor winds and the sun. There was then, not just a purpose, but some mercy to the hood. Still, I did not relish wearing it.

Akkanu had turned his crodlu toward the rest of the slaves bound, to be delivered as a gift to his sovereign and kinsmen, as if inspecting them. Then Akkanu turned his crodlu again, and prepared to depart the chain.

“Akkanu,” I bellowed.

He paused, and guided the crodlu to my side. The men were closer now, fastening on the prisoners the slave hoods.

“We go to Urik?” I asked.

“Indeed,” he intoned.

“Over the desert?”

“Of course. In the wastelands, only the strong survive. Only the strong are fit to fight for Hamanu. This is what pleases Cuthbert; so this is what pleases Hamanu. So, then, you will march through the desert. I have no doubt you will survive”.

“I will. And I will be free again, and then, I will, like I did to your cousin,” I said, “kill you”.

“Indeed”

“Indeed,” I replied, mocking him.

“One gains revenge’ “ said Akkanu, “but one loses an enemy.”

He looked at me. A strange look came upon his face, a mixture of suppressed rage and sudden insight. He unsheathed his axe.

“No,” I said. “I will march to Urik.”

“I am prepared to be merciful,” said he, “Comrade.”

“Comrade? Mercy?”

“Consider it a preventative stratagem”

“Should I escape”

“Indeed, should you escape,” he said, raising the axe, small in his massive hand.

“But none have escaped the march to Urik”

“None”

“And doubtless once there, none have escaped the arena”

“There have been a few”

“You give me much hope, noble sire. That I may be one of few to escape. I may not, then, be the first, but once done, I will kill you”

He smiled; a sardonic wrinkle of the snout.

“Perhaps then, I should kill you now”

“You would then have your family’s revenge, but, too, you would lose an enemy”

“True”

“You could, of course, kill me once I have escaped, if only as a defensive stratagem”

“True”

“But I do not think you will kill me now”

“No,” he sighed, “I will offer, but I do not think you one who would take my offer”

“That is true” I said.

“It is cool here,” he said. “Your death would be swift.”

“No,” I said.

“You are of the old ones, those who follow the beast within,” said he. “You have their stupidity, their grit, their courage. You too, like them, will suffer much for it”.

“I will march to Urik,” I said.

He lifted the axe before me, in salute. “March then,” said he, “to Urik.” He sheathed the axe into the loop on his saddle, swiftly. He turned his crodlu. He rode down the line, the burnoose swelling behind him.

Joreth, who was the man who had captured me, now in the sand veil of the slave merchants, stood near.

“I ride with the chain,” he said, “I would not miss the chance to show you wretched bull man, what your true calling is: Slave”.

“I shall enjoy your company,” I said.

“You will feel my whip” he said.

I saw the kneeling crodlu of the guards, the guards now mounted, lifting themselves, to their feet. I surveyed the number of crodlu which bore water. “Our path then is far more direct then imagined,” I said.

“No, it is far longer,” he said.

“There is not enough water,” I said,

“There is more than enough,” said he. “Many will not reach Urik.”

“I will be one who does”.

“Yes,” said Joreth, “should you be strong enough to endure.”

“What if difficulties should arise, unanticipated, on the journey,” I asked.

“Then, unfortunately, I shall be forced to slay you in the chain.”

“And if I am, somehow, not in the chain”

Joreth merely scoffed, and irritating little laugh of one is sure what he knows is intrinsically true.

“Is it important that I reach Urik?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Joerth.

“Why?” I asked.

“You have given the family of the Anu, and their agents, much trouble,” said he. “You have opposed yourself to their will. Knossu, thus, will beg them for his life in the arena.”

“Knossus, thus,” I repeated, “will fight in the arena.”

“Knossu, thus, will beg for his life”, he corrected.

“Will you Joreth, beg for your life, when the time comes that I return to take it?”

“Look,” said Joreth angrily, ignoring my taunt.

Joerth drew forth from his saddle bag a small piece of cloth. He pushed it his nose.

“It stinks of bull dung,” he said. “I was even given words to intone. Heed them cow slave”.

“This then is the token of a murdered heiress, one who would have brought cities into the empire without bloodshed,” said Joerth contemptuously.

He thrust and twisted the square of silk in the metal of my collar, and yanked it tight.

“Remember those whose blood is on your hands, monster,” he said.

I steeled my resolution to kill this man.

Some crodlu moved by, laden with various supplies. Some guards rode by.

I smelled the silk; it was heavily perfumed. I recalled the perfume. It had assaulted my nostrils and enflamed my blood when the girl, Zaya, had flirted with me in the tavern. She and her mate were slumming, aristocrats whose privileges allowed them to freely sample the freedoms of the fringe element of Urik; privileges that would also shield them from the pain and misery manifested in the world outside the tavern. This girl, Zaya as I said her name was, was deliberately goading her lover, a noble young scion of the Anu, into a jealous rage by her whorish teasing of some unsuspecting mark. It was a game; one that ended with their deaths. I did not in any way blame myself. One does not blame a cat for hissing when its tail is pulled. My only crime, my only fault, was in believing that I would be treated fairly, that justice would be done. For that, I have no one to blame but myself.

But those two? Had they known their game piece was one who had not mastered their so called ‘gentle’ ways, one who had not calmed the beast within, perhaps then, I would not be in chains ready to march to Urik. But they did not, and now, they were dead.

But I was not. And I vowed I would not die on the march to Urik, or in the arena. I would live, and put Urik and all who had sentenced me to the sword.

I saw the sky, grayish, the descending moons, the desert, and then the hood was pulled over my head, jerked tight, and locked.

+ + +

We trudged, climbing, chained, and hooded, half dragged, tortuously, up the long slope. Time seemed measured in steps, the blows of the whip, the slow turning of the sun, over the hours, from one shoulder to the other.

For twenty days had we marched. Some thought it a hundred. Many had lost count. More than one man raved, insane in the chain. We had begun with some two hundred and fifty men, beast, and other humanoids. The chain was heavier now. Lengths had been removed from it. But still was it heavier. We did not know how many now carried the chain, or the remaining lengths.

Normally one does not move on the wastelands in the day, but the march to Urik is made in the sun, that only the strong will survive. We were given little to eat, but much water. In the desert, without water, even the strong die swiftly. Of the burning winds, we were given residuum before we left; for the rest of the march, we would need to rely on our endurance to survive. At least though, we had water.

“Kill us! Kill us!” one kept screaming. I recognized the accent of giant; he would be the half-giant I had seen in the chain before the hood was placed upon me.

At the crest of the slope we heard a man call “Hold!” The chain stopped.

I sank to my knees, the sand hot, burning my knees. The inside of the slave hood seemed bright and granular. Even within it I closed my eyes. I held my hands, my neck, as still as possible, for the least movement would shift the collar, the manacles, the chain at my waist, and stir burning iron in the raw, abraded flesh. I did not wish to lose consciousness. Too many I feared who had lost it had not regained it. The guards of the chain did not see fit to dally overlong with the inert.

The sand clung to my body.

The sun was of the late spring in the wasteland. The surface temperature of the sand would be in the neighborhood of 160. The air temperature would range from 120 to 140. The marches to Urik are not made in the summer, only in the winter, the spring and fall, that some will survive them.

I lifted my head to the sun, and shut my eves against the redness, the heat and stale, sweat stained air that filled the hood. I put down my head. Even in the hood I sensed the reflected heat radiating from the sand.

A crodlu moved swiftly past me, its paws scattering sand. I felt it in the marks on my back, and in the chain sores.

“Kill us! Kill us!” the half-giant screamed again, from somewhere in the chain behind me, several collars away.

Another crodlu moved past me, moving toward the front of the chain. My fists clenched.

I wondered if I could endure another day. I knew that I could. I had much to live for. There was a bit of silk, wrapped, fastened in the collar I wore. There was a man, perhaps not yards away from me, that had sold me into slavery. Most of all, there was a duke, and his noble clan, that had put in motion the events that led to my bondage. I must endure so that I may wash the sand with their blood; that I may feel the life ebb from their bodies; that I may feel their last breath blown into my face. I must live.

“Kill us! Kill us!” screamed the half-giant.

“There are too many,” I heard one of the guards say.

“Alternate collars,” said a voice.

“Start after the minotaur. He, I wish to see suffer a little longer,” another voice said. It was Joreth.

“No!” a voice screamed. “No!”

The guards knew the water. We did not.

It seemed a long time we knelt in the sand. After some minutes I heard men afoot near me. They were moving down the chain. I tensed in the hood. Suddenly the chain before me, jerked. I heard no sound. Then the chain pulled down. I struggled to my feet, pulling against the chain with my neck, wild, not able to see. “Kneel,” said a voice. I felt the cool touch of steel on my neck. I knelt. I tensed. I could not see in the hood. I knelt, a chained captive in the sands. I could not lift my hands before my body. I was helpless, absolutely.

“No,” I heard a voice cry, “No!”

The chain at my throat, from behind, shook, and sprang taut. I heard feet, scraping in the sand, slipping. There was a cry, and I felt, through the chain, a drag, and shudder. Then the men continued on their way.

“I misjudged the water,” I heard Joreth say.

“It does not matter,” said someone.

We knelt in the sand. Somewhere, a few feet from me, I heard a man talking to himself. He was mumbling prayers to gods that had not, and would not, answer him ever.

Another man came down the chain. I heard him open the collars on either side of me.

I heard, a short time later, the flutter of wings, the alighting of one or more large birds. Such birds, broad-winged, black and white, from afar, follow the marches to Urik; their beaks, yellowish, narrow, are long and slightly hooked at the end, useful for probing and tearing.

The birds scattered, squawking, as a crodlu sped past.

“On your feet, slaves!” I heard.

The lash struck me twice. I did not object to it. I could feel it. The blood coursed through my body. The pain was sharp, rich, deep, and keen. I did not object to the pain, for I could feel it. Elation coursed through me, fierce, uncontrollable, for I was alive. The lash struck again. I laughed, struggling to my feet. I stood straight. “March, Slaves!” I heard, and I began again the march, moving first with the left foot, then the right, that the march be uniform, that the chain be carried evenly. It was heavier than before, but I carried it lightly, for I was alive. No longer did I object to the sand in my flesh, the heat. It was enough that I lived. How foolish it seemed then, suddenly, that one should want more. How should one want more, save perhaps health and honor, and his enemies, slain at one’s feet? I marched onward again, brushing through feeding birds, once more toward Urik. I hummed to myself a simple tune, a tune I had never forgotten, a warrior tune that is my one memory of my true family.

Four days later, on a crest, the voice again called “Hold!” and the chain held.

“Do not kill us! Do not kill us!” screamed a voice. I recognized it. It was the voice of the half-giant who, through much of the march, had cried for us to be killed. He had been silent since the noon halt of four days ago. I had not known whether he had survived or not.

Crodlu moved past us.

I heard collars being opened. For the hood I could not see. The silk, which was tied in my collar, was removed. It was tied, by order of Joreth, who rode near, about my left wrist, under the manacle. I felt the silk in the circular wrist sore. A heavy key was then thrust in the lock of my collar. The lock contained sand and grit. In the heat the metal was expanded. The lock resisted. Then the key, forced, with a heavy snap, turned, freeing the lock bolt. The collar was opened. The collar was jerked from my throat, and dropped, with the chain, in the crusts. The man then moved to the next prisoner.

No man fled from the chain.

“The guard will meet them below. We may not take crodlu in,” said a man.

“A shame; my purse is heavy, and I’m sure there would be ways to lighten it in town” said another.

“You’ll have plenty of time to spend your coin when we return,” Joreth replied, “Now hurry and finish unchaining these slaves. I don’t’ wish to dally overlong in the sun”.

We stood for some minutes. I felt the blood and sand in the split shreds of the leather wrappings on my legs. I took care not to move the manacles and chain.

I felt a key inserted in the lock of the slave hood. To my surprise it was thrust up, and jerked from my head. I cried out in sudden pain, the unbelievable white light, hot, fierce, universal, merciless, shuddering in the scalding air of the encircling, blazing crusts, from horizon to horizon, exploding, stabbing, searing like irons at my face and eyes. “I’m blind,” cried a man. “I’m blind!”

Crodlu moved along the line. It would be long minutes before we could see.

We heard chains being looped and gathered. More crodlu passed me.

My limbs felt weak, and ached. I was dizzy. I could scarcely move. I could scarcely stand.

“Look,” cried one of the guards. We lifted our heads. We struggled to our feet. We gritted our eyelids, to shut out the heat, the blinding light.

“Water!” cried a voice. “Water!”

It was a half-dwarf, called a mul, come from the desert about. He had not been in the chain. He wore no manacles.

“Water!” he cried. He staggered toward us. He wore a bit of cloth. His body moved awkwardly. His fingernails were gone. His mouth and face seemed split, like dried crust. His face was wild, with streaks and veins that spoke of the poison in the razor winds.

“It is an escaped slave from the desert,” said Joreth. He unsheathed his sword, and loped toward the man. He bent down easily from the saddle, the blade loose, but he did not strike, but returned to the other guards. The mul stood in the crusts, looking after the rider, stupidly. “Water…” he said. “Please, water.”

“Shall we have sport?” asked Joreth of two of his fellows.

“The trek has been long,” grinned one, “and there has been little diversion.”

“Two days worth?” asked one.

“Three”.

“The right ear?”

“The left,” said the other, “let’s make this worth the wager”.

“Agreed”.

They loosened their lances.

“Water,” said the mul. “Water.”

The first man, kicking the crodlu forward, missed his thrust. The gait of the crodlu in the sand was not even. The mark, too, was not an easy one. To strike it would require considerable skill.

The haggard mul stood in the crusts, stupidly.

“Now, see how this is done Ibn,” said the next man, grasping the long, slim lance, eight feet in length, marked with red and yellow swirling stripes, terminating in an extremely narrow point, razored, steel, some eleven inches in length.

All the time he had not taken his eyes from the target.

“Water!” cried the mul. Then he screamed as the lance struck him, turning him about.

The second rider had been skillful. The blade had penetrated below the helix and opened the ear, lifting and parting, in its upward movement, the helix.

The man staggered back in the sand, he lifted his hand. The first rider cursed. He had charged again. This time, the man, stumbling, trying to turn away, had been struck on the left arm, high, just below the shoulder. I was startled that there was so little blood, for the wound was deep. It was as though the man had no blood to bleed. There was a, ridge of reddish fluid at the cut. I watched through narrowed eyelids, grimacing against the light. To my horror I saw the man press his mouth to the wound, sucking at the bit of blood. He did not move, but stood in the crusts, sucking at the blood.

Joreth, easily, on the crodlu, his sword still light in his hand, rode behind the man. I did not watch, but turned away.

“The point is to Baram,” said Joreth. Clearly the second rider had been the finest.

“Are we prepared to return?” said one of the guards.

“We have water sufficient for the return trip,” said another, “moving at an unimpeded pace if we take the direct path back.”

To my amazement I saw one of the guards unlocking the stomach-chain and manacles of one of the prisoners. Already the man’s slave hood had been removed. And we had, already, been freed of the neck chain.

I looked about, through half-shut eyes. I stood unsteadily. I counted. There were twenty prisoners standing in the crusts. I shuddered.

Joreth rode to my side. He had wiped his blade on the padding beneath the crodlu’s saddle. He resheathed the blade. I felt the heat. We stood on a crest, overlooking a broad, shallow valley.

Joreth leaned down. “There,” he said, pointing into the broad valley. “Can you see?”

“Yes,” I said.

In the distance, below, perhaps five or six miles away, in the hot, concave, white sand bleakness, like a vast, white, shallow bowl, miles wide, there was a mighty city. To the west and north of it fields, most likely fed by a myriad of lush oasis and wells. To the south, a wide encampment of tents stood, merchant and nomad alike. The roads to the north and south were choked with wagon traffic. Only to the east, the direction from which we had come was the emptiness of the wasteland. It seemed as though the city were leagues away from where we stood. In the distance I could see a small figures moving towards us; it was those who would bring us into the city. They appeared to be other Minotaur, resplendent in armor, marching with a pack of sand skiffs. The people of Urik were never meant to see what was done to the men and creatures that fought for their amusement; they were not to know how they arrived, or when, or even to see the rough men who had brought them.

“Urik,” said Joreth, “but you know that don’t you?”

“I have made the march to Urik,” said one of the prisoners. He cried out, elatedly, “I have made the march to Urik!” It was the half-giant who had, for many of the days, cried out for us to be slain. It was he who had, since the noon halt of four days ago, been silent.

I looked at the prisoners. We looked at one another. Our bodies were burned black by the sun. The flesh, in many places, had cracked. Lighter colored flesh could be seen beneath. There was sand on us, to our thighs. The leather wrappings about our legs were in tatters. Our necks and bodies were abraded, raw from collar and chain. Our bodies were cruel with cramps and weakness. But we stood, all of us, and straight, for we had come to Urik.

Twenty had come to Urik.

The first prisoner, whose bonds had been removed, was thrust in the direction of the city. He began to stagger down the slope toward the valley, slipping in the sand, sometimes stumbling on the ever increasing rock and scree.

One by one the prisoners were freed. None attempted to flee into the desert, back into the dunes of the wasteland. Each, as he was freed, began to trudge toward Urik. There was nowhere else to go.

The half-giant, who had cried out, “I have made the match to Urik!” was freed. He staggered toward the oncoming greeters, running, half falling, down the long slope.

I was freed. Together we trudged toward Urik, following the straggling line of men before us.

We came upon a figure, fallen in the sand. It was he who had run ahead, who had cried out, disbelievingly, joyously, “I have made the march to Urik!”

I turned the half-giant’s body over in the sand. He was dead.

I rose to my feet.

Nineteen had come to Urik

I looked back once, to see Joreth, he who was in the fee of the slave merchants, who was supposedly the faithful devotee of Cuthbert named Robert, a traveler on the way to meet his nephew, turn his crodlu, and, with a scattering of sand, following the others, disappeared over the crest.

I looked up toward the merciless sun. Its relentless presence seemed to fill the sky.

I looked down.

About my left wrist, knotted, bleached in the sun, was a bit of silk. On it, still, lingered the perfume of a minotaur maiden, one who, in her foolishness, had awoken the beast that had lain still inside me. I would remember her well.

I looked up at the sun again, and then, bitter, looked away. I put the wench from my head. She was only a foolish girl, long dead.

The important thing was my vow, the vow to kill those who had enslaved me, those who had wronged me. As Joreth rode back to the northeast, back along the winding and torturous trail used to temper and train the arena slaves of Urik, I realized that on one I account I had failed.

I was bitter.

Suddenly, the song, the warrior tune of my youth, came to my lips. I was not free, but I was alive. That and my strength were all I needed to ensure that those who had made me suffer would perish.

Then I began to walk to Urik.