Merlin the Archer, part 2: Slave Boy


 

3 Slave Boy

 

      “Aro!” shouted the short man as he hit me in the back of my shoulder with his heavy stick. I think I cried out, I know it hurt. He raised his stick to hit me again, but the Big Man held up his hand and said something. I threw up again into the water.

      Awa! Awa! How could this be happening? The ship, the winged floating house that the tale-teller Ruuk had drunkenly spoken of, slid up and down on the rolling water. Not far, across the waves, tall cliffs rose out of the sea. Even taller blue and brown mountains floated in the haze beyond. I was sick from the motion of the waves as I had hardly ever been sick before. My throat was dry, but they gave me little water. I tried scooping water from the sea, but it tasted like blood. I couldn’t understand it.

     I couldn’t understand what had happened at all, except I knew I had been captured by the Oddars, who forced marched me and twenty others far down the Voda’s valley to where another river, bigger than the Voda, flowed. There was a big village there, many times bigger than ours. The Oddars had drunk much bir while we sat miserably on the ground, bound hand to foot in a line. Liia, Shutta, Tarn, seven young boys, the rest women of all ages. Belit was not among them. It all seemed like a dream to me, a nightmare after a wonder. Where had our hunters been? I saw Mata lying in the blood behind our house. Her image stayed in my mind. It lay over everything, like a mist through which I saw the new lands we passed through.

     In a few days and after many long marches along a pathway at the river’s edge strewn with jagged stones, we had reached the endless water, the sea. Waves washed against the rocky shore. Large white and grey birds circled overhead, calling out in loud, strident voices. I saw that Ruuk was right. Floating houses with giant wings flew across the water. They were called brakka – ships. Others, called jana, boats, were smaller, and men moved them with long poles, carved flat on one end. There was a much larger village where the big river met the endless water. It had tall houses that were white like snow, but the snow didn’t melt, even though the air was very hot away from our mountains. The houses were on top of each other up the side of a hill. I couldn’t count them; I had no numbers that great. Maybe there were more that ten hands, maybe twenty hands worth Maybe forty hands worth. It was beyond my mind’s comprehension.

     There was a wooden road of logs that lay over the water to which the brakka were tied. The small waves of the endless water made the coarse sand hiss as the water withdrew before falling forward again. In spite of my misery I was drawn to the rising and falling water. It was like a spell being cast. Waves rose up out of the endless water in long lines, over and over without ceasing. Several brakka were there. We were to be loaded onto the biggest. It had a great wing of animal skins sewn together that hung from a tall pole at the center of the ship. Long poles stuck out from along the sides. Its master was a man who looked different from us and from the Oddars. Truly, the Oddars looked just like our hunters did, clad in skins and sheepskin and bearskin hats. But these ship men wore long shirts of cloth and blue sewn caps. They had big noses and long, dark beards. Many had tattoos on their faces. Some carried spears and axes tipped with something other than flint. It was shiny and both red and green, the hard metal called cypros: copper. The men were very mean to us. They beat us with leather whips and heavy sticks and only fed us a thin gruel. They sat on the shore, where a man had a place that sold bir and the red drink called vanna. The more they drank, the more we worried we would get beaten. But also, we wondered if maybe we could escape. I thought we could. Tarn sat miserably on the rocks and sand, shaking like a terrified rabbit.

      But though the slavers got very drunk, they kept one or two watching us the whole time, armed with spears. We were tied together close, hand to foot, with sheep-gut. Even scratching one of our endless bug bites made the next slave groan and have to move. Unless we could somehow cut the cord, we were stuck. The air was stifling and windless for a whole day, and we lay strung out on the shore, exhausted and hopeless.

      Finally, the slavers roused themselves from the bir stand and loaded us onto the ship. One of the men, a red-bearded giant, shoved the ship into the deeper water and then climbed on board as the brakka rocked in the waves. I couldn’t believe the feeling of the moving brakka. Despite myself, I felt a little excited to be on the flying house. They loosened our bonds after we had made deeper water and put us on hard benches.  We had to pull the heavy poles, called oars. The Big Man showed us how. It was hard work, and the women had a difficult time with it. Even though our people are strong and believe in Awa, many of them cried and whimpered. The women spit on themselves for luck and the blessing of Awa. The ship’s master, an angry looking man, short and thick, hit each of us with his stick to make us work the oars correctly. As we passed a rocky point, one of our women, a girl named Lulla, jumped suddenly over the side and began to try to reach the shore. The master smiled and picked up his bow and calmly shot her in the back. She twisted in the water in pain. I could see blood streaming red in the clear blue water. She put her arm up and then slumped forward and floated, unmoving, on the swell. The ship drew near her body, and one of the men reached out and yanked the arrow from her, and then we were past her. I watched her body bobbing on the waves, getting ever smaller. The master turned to us and said something in a harsh tone. We didn’t understand his words, but we knew what he meant: pull the oars.

 

       Now, we had been on the sea for days. The swells had grown frighteningly tall and then gotten gentle again. Wind had blown and the sail had been raised. Rain had fallen and given us some coolness. The clouds had parted and the wind had died and we had rowed again until it felt that our arms would break off. Almost all of us had been sick over and over, though Tarn seemed to be holding up better than I was. At night we anchored in calm bays, under cliffs. The voice of the waves falling on the shore came again and again, as endless as the rocking of the brakka.

        “Aro!” yelled the man again angrily and once again he raised his stick to hit me, but this time the Big Man, the one with the red beard, stepped between the man and me, standing on one of the wooden benches, and put up his hand to ward off the blow. He glared at the stick-man and said nothing. Stick- man glared back, but lowered his cudgel; no point in fighting Big Man over a boy.

        I looked over at Tarn, who gave me a puzzled look. We couldn’t understand much of the language of these sea-people yet, though there were some words in common. We could guess at which ones meant row, faster, stop. They called their drink bir, as we did, and the red drink vanna. The slavers often laughed and argued among themselves. They also raped the women on the back deck at night, taking turns with the prettiest ones. But even the oldest and youngest ones had the same misery.  Tarn and I and the other boys could only hang our heads as we listened to their cries of anguish and wish the bad men death. We called out silently to Awa and spat on ourselves to ward off the evil, and cursed the men under our breath, but it didn’t do any good. I began to wonder if Awa didn’t come to the sea. There must be other gods and goddesses here, ones we didn’t know. Mata used to say Awa was everywhere, but I doubted it was so. In fact, I wondered if Awa was anywhere. How could she let Mata be killed and us taken? What do did we ever do wrong to Awa? Nothing I could see. I pushed my initiation with Belit from my mind. If I had been at the house I would have been killed along with Mata. In my mind I saw myself smashing Awa down into little pieces of rock, but then thought better of it and offered a prayer. I hoped she hadn’t been watching my mind. Mata always said Awa could kill you if she wanted to. It was best to be afraid of the gods.

      Tarn and I could not talk, because the slavers would beat us if we did, so we communicated with our eyes. He had recovered from his early fright. One can even share a joke with just the eyes, and also one can warn another. I spent a lot of time studying the brakka: the way the wood was fitted together, the pitch between the planks, the ropes that controlled the sail, the steering sweep in the back. I was learning that Awa had given me the gift of understanding how things work. Before too long I could see how the ship was sailed. After a while, I could sense changes in the sea and sky, feel the wind move in a new direction, notice the meeting places of currents clashing up in standing waves.  The sea was a new place and exciting, but the stars at night were the same stars as at home, and made me wish my fate had been different and had never taken me from the high mountains.

       We were heading ever towards hotter lands. The mountains became brown; the hot winds blew over us from the south like fire as we worked the oars. They only fed us enough to stay alive, gave us just enough water to keep us rowing. Big Man sometimes took pity on us and poured buckets of sea water over our heads, which felt cool for moment, but left us with raspy, dry skin and salt dripping in our eyes as we sweated. The brakka leaked plenty, so our feet were wet and cool, though my skin began to rot around my toes and I spent a lot of energy in keeping them above the bilge.

        After almost two hands of days, we came around a long point and saw what I now know was a town, though I thought it must be the home of the gods themselves at the time. There must have been hundreds of houses. I couldn’t conceive how many people there were there. The houses were white, like the town we had left from, but here they seemed taller, with many doors and windows in them. Our houses in the mountains had been round, with no windows, or only small holes in the thatch roof to let the smoke of the hearth out. This port town covered a low hill that jutted out from the main shore. The harbor lay partly behind it, protected from the waves and wind. On the hills further inland I could see trees growing in ordered lines. I had never seen that, and I stared in wonder at the scene before us. Many boats and brakkas floated in the harbor, and there were docks all along the shore, and a long curving beach of grey sand. As we rowed into the harbor, I saw that on top of the hill-city there stood the largest building I had ever seen. It had many tall pillars like tree-trunks and a thick, flat, red roof.

      “Itak!” yelled one of the men. “Itak!” They clapped their hands and laughed.

      But thought the slavers rejoiced, my heart sank, and dread showed on the faces of all of us at the oars. Tarn looked at me with panic in his eyes. What would become of us now?

 

       We were bound together once again as before, hand to foot, one to the next. We were now ten and seven: three women had died: Lulla by the arrow and the other two, Lit and Amat, had been killed by the men after they had struggled while being raped. There had been tense bickering among the slavers over these deaths for a few minutes. A dead slave is worth nothing. But they were just tossed off the deck into the dark sea like waste.

       The brakka slid in and was tied at a long dock, one of many that stuck out from the shore. Other boats were tied up or anchored. All along the beach there were small jana and brakka up on the sands or floating just in shallow water. Some had sails, some just oars. I looked at them and made a wish and prayer to Awa that Tran and I would be able to steal a boat and make our way to freedom. A long line of houses faced the curving bay. In front of the houses stood and walked so many people; it hurt my mind. There were piles of stuffs: cloth, wood, things that I knew not by name.

     The Master and the others dragged us from the brakka onto the dock and ordered us to sit. We collapsed, like dogs after a mountain crossing. The dock seemed to still move like the waves and I felt myself getting sick, but used my mind to ward off the act of throwing up. Tarn and I exchanged looks. Men had gathered on the dock to see the new slaves. The master talked with them: one, then the other. They nodded and argued. Finally, they made us rise and led us off along the shore.

        Beyond the first line of houses, there was an open space surrounded by many houses and stalls. The number of people was too much to understand. They passed by, short, dark men, tall men with blue eyes, men wearing skins as we did, men and women wearing long cloths of all colors wrapped around their bodies. Some had hats of straw, some covered their faces with cloaks, and some wrapped cloth in a circle around their heads. Some sat dully with their backs against the walls of the white houses while others walked by quickly, intent on whatever they were doing. There were piles of food stuffs in the open space. I realized it was a place of barter. Red fruits, grapes, rabbits, fish of all colors and sizes, and strange dark sea creatures with long coiled legs covered in circles hung from stings off poles. There were women everywhere, most with their faces covered with dark cloth, but some with long hair and shiny objects in their tresses and small blue stones and the clear stone that’s yellow, that sometime has bees trapped inside it like magic, hanging from their ears. One young dark-eyed beauty smiled at me. She reminded me of Belit. I felt her gaze in my manhood.

         As we passed through the place, I caught the eye of one older, worn-out man sitting in the dirt, who wore skins in the manner of our mountain- folk. He looked at me hard with his deep-set eyes. A scar ran across one side of his face. He stood up slowly, as if it hurt him to stand, and made his way through the throng of people. As he passed me, I felt a tug on my waistband. I didn’t know what had happened. I looked back the man. He was melting back into the crowd. He held up one finger to his lips and then disappeared around a corner.

        We were taken to a mud and stone wall next to a bir shop and made to sit with goats and pigs and other animals in a rough corner pen made of bales of hay and other stuffs. We were nothing more than animals to these men. The sun was setting and it was clear that they were going to get drunk. They set two of their number on us as guards, though they also drank too and were soon glaze-eyed. There were women at the place, who drank with the men. It didn’t take too much thinking to see what was going on. At dusk, the marketplace emptied of daytime people. But the ones who stayed were there for bir and vanna and for animal concerns.  The slavers coupled with the vanna-women right in the corners of the streets, grunting like swine.

        We drew together out of fear, for around the bir shop in the market-place there were many rough men, all very drunk and getting drunker. Fights kept breaking out. Not long after dark, one man was killed by two others. His body lay in the dust, blood from a neck slash pooling under him, his dead eyes lit by the torches outside the bir shop. Tarn managed to get near me and we whispered.

        “We must get free!”

        “I know, this isn’t good.” I said quietly. But we were bound, and the men, while drunk, were still outside the tavern, milling about.

      Wait, I felt something at my side. I remembered the man in the market tugging at my waistband. I felt with my free hand. It was a hard object, stuck in the folds of my long shirt. I drew it out. It was a flint blade, a finger- length long.  A gift from Awa! I signaled Tarn to silence. I worked the sharp flint on my wrist cord and cut it, and then freed my ankle. I crept to Tarn and did the same for him. The others were sleeping. Should I cut them free? I wanted to, but I knew we would have no chance of escape as a group. Tarn and I might be able to get past the guards once they passed out from drink.

      As Tarn and I crouched in the darkness, unsure of what to do next, one of the guards got up and stumbled off into the shop, from which came loud shouts and laughter. The other guard seemed to be dozing. I nodded my head in his direction. Tarn saw him, too. Tarn and I crept slowly to the edge of the bales. A pig snorted loudly as it was inconvenienced by our passing, but we crawled between the bales and were free. I knew where the beach was, just past the row of houses beyond the shop. Not a hundred lengths.

       Just as we began to sneak away, there stood in front of us the unmistakable shadow of the Big Man. He looked at us stupidly. He was plainly very drunk. He swayed on his huge legs. I could see sweat dripping down his face and arms in the torchlight.

        “Warto gah! Where you go, my rabbits?” He spat. He grabbed at Tarn and caught him by the hair with his big hand and forced him to his knees. At the same time, he pulled down his pants with his other hand. He yanked Tarn’s head roughly towards him. I held the flint tight in my hand, jumped right at him, and swiped at his manhood. I got lucky. The flint cut him deeply halfway down his shaft. Blood spurted out all over my arm, but I didn’t drop the flint.

      The big man let out a horrible yell, loosed his hold on Tarn, and tried to spin around and grab me. He looked down at the dark blood pouring down his leg.

      “Run!” I yelled.

      We ran across the deserted marketplace. There no light, but away from the shop, the stars were enough. I heard the dead-raising roaring curses of the Big Man and the voices of others shouting and laughing. But in a moment we were on the beach. I strained to see the shape of a boat with a sail. There was one just offshore. We waded out to our waists and clambered onboard. I could hear shouting now. They were coming!

       The anchor! “I hissed at Tarn. I found an oar and began pushing the boat away from the beach, digging the oar into the sandy bottom. The jana slid away across the water until the oar didn’t touch the bottom. I almost lost my grip on the long oar, but held on.

      “Quick! I’ll row. Use the steering sweep, Not too much- just straight out!” I whispered.

       I slipped the oars into the wooden locks. I pulled with my strong slave muscles. I was suddenly glad I had pulled an oar before! Back on the waterfront, men were stumbling around with torches. Lucky for us, Awa’s wind was blowing from the land, behind us. I couldn’t see any boats following. Slowly we made our way out into the open water. I kept rowing until I thought my arms would fall off. Then Tarn and I switched and he pulled as I steered our boat away around to the south beyond the point and the few flickering lights of the hill-top city. In the large, pillared building on the top, a flame burned. I watched it slowly fade in the distance over my shoulder until we were alone on the sea in the darkness, free at last, at least for now.

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