The Warrior From Batuk: Chapters 1 and 2

The Warrior from Batuk
by Aardvark

Zhor is a planet where the mysterious Overlords rule, where men and women live for centuries and are permitted to be themselves. There, a young warrior's love and dreams are shattered when he wakes up one morning as a serum girl, a beautiful woman with the DNA of one of Zhor's finest slaves. Her old life destroyed, she must not only fight to hold onto her identity as she is forced to make a new life as a woman, but also to keep her freedom, not easy when her body insists that she would be happiest branded and collared.


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The Legal Stuff: The Warrior from Batuk  © 2004, 2007 Aardvark
 
This work is the property of the author, and the author retains full copyright, in relation to printed material, whether on paper or electronically. Any adaptation of the whole or part of the material for broadcast by radio, TV, or for stage plays or film, is the right of the author unless negotiated through legal contract. Permission is granted for it to be copied and read by individuals, and for no other purpose. Any commercial use by anyone other than the author is strictly prohibited, and may only be posted to free sites with the express permission of the author.
 

This work is fictitious, and any similarities to any persons, alive or dead, are purely coincidental.

 
Photo Credit: 3.bp.blogspot.com


 
And now, as they say, for something completely different.
 
 
Chapter 1
 
 
It was at moments like these that my thoughts turned towards life, remembering the faces of those for whom I fought. In other days, I’d seen my sister Tisa, and sometimes, Mother. This time, my mind’s eye settled upon Angel, a strange choice, as she was property, not properly a part of my home city, Batuk. If I died that morning, she would weep, but, following her nature, would soon find herself happily mastered in another’s arms.

It was an odd enough thought that I tightened my grip on the reins, making Nemesis stir. I might have dismissed it, but then, in that otherworldly moment of clarity that sometimes comes just before a warrior’s fate is determined, my gut knotted as if Angel was already gone. I thought it powerful enough to call it a premonition.

“Close now, Tyr!” Der hissed down at me through the wind-swept darkness.

I nodded towards my second, but his eyes had already returned to the camp on the other side of the dune. That was another reason for unease: this inexplicable border war with Tulem. Our neighbor to the south was more a loose rival than an enemy — or that was how it had always been. The boundaries had been established for over two hundred years. Between thoughts of losing my love slave and dying for an unknown cause, it made the warrior exercises difficult, and I was less than serene when, a short while later, Der raised his fist until it stood among the stars, then brought it down like a hammer.

I jabbed Nemesis; he shot forward with a snort. I was first to the top, with the rest of my two-dozen raiders just behind, black cloaks and horse dye making us a wave of shadows.

We swept out, seeking blood. The camp was enclosed by two columns of tents, with the larger guards’ tent erected between, and the caravan’s wagons and horses on the far side. A single fire burned in the center, an odd arrangement, I thought, bright enough where it might affect their night vision, but not placed to find us. I spied the nearest guards, two talking together in the lee of the guards’ tent, where their polished armor under the clear night sky may as well have been beacons.

Morons.

I stayed low and quiet in the sand. At twenty yards, I rose with a javelin in my hand and threw it into the first guard's back. He folded like a sack of grain. My second throw transfixed the other as he turned, and he shrieked like a demon as he passed into the afterworld.

By Marten's red balls, if the camp isn't awake now, it never will be.

Seeing no one else, I whirled Nemesis around and pounded towards the crack of spears and screams. The tent lines made it too hazardous to be mounted, so I pulled a leg over and slid from the saddle with sword in hand.

An impression of movement to my right made me jump backwards, and the long spear meant to spill my guts scored my lower breastplate.

I leaped sideways and rolled, lifting my cloak from my shoulders on the way. When the guard tried to stake me to the ground, I cast it at him like a net. He backpedaled, expecting a charge behind it. Instead, I threw my boot knife at his head. While he ducked, I snatched the cloak from the ground, whipped it around the blocking tines of the spearhead, and jerked it towards me. As he stumbled forward, I guided the spear head down and away with the hilt of my sword, forcing my way towards him until I was close enough. With a yell, I reversed the grip, and snapped my sword down the shaft.

He dropped the spear before it cost him fingers and reached for his sword. I didn’t give him the chance and split his thigh to the bone. The guard screamed in fury.

I batted away a thrust from an awkward angle, and then stabbed him in the shoulder and calf. He staggered, and toppled to the ground with a groan.

Stepping on his sword, I kicked his hand away, placing my blade against his throat. A glance to the side showed me that more than a dozen men lay on the ground, soaking the plains with blood, nearly all of them theirs. A few of my warriors were tying up wounded guards or watching those already secured, and only one guard still fought on against three of mine. It was enough to let this one live.

“Yield!”

He glared at me and spat the words: “Damn it to Hades! I yield.”

“Fas!” I called without looking away. A man limped to my side. “Secure him.”

“Yes, Raid Leader.”

I left them staring at each other and jogged off to find any stragglers to the fight. I heard laughter and followed it. The guards’ tent was down, flapping in the wind. One of my veterans slapped my younger brother, Ron, on the back. Apparently, Ron had rounded the guards’ tent leaning from his horse, slicing the tent lines. Once the tent had fallen, the canvas had become a trap for the last few guards inside. When they moved, they looked like a pack of cockroaches under a tablecloth.

“Come out now or die!” I shouted. “The rest have surrendered!”

For most, life is too long to waste on idiocy. They emerged crawling, and laid their weapons into a pile.

The merchants needed even less encouragement. Seeing who won, the perfumed seals in expensive robes slunk from their tents and knelt before us. Tulem’s traders weren’t stupid: the warrior codes would keep them alive and healthy, with only their goods and valuables forfeit, their penalty for trespassing into Batuk territory.

Sunrise was a red glow when I reviewed the line of merchants. I pointed to a tall, powerfully built man. Unlike the rest, who looked down, he sat straight.

“Who is the leader of this caravan and where are the inventories?” I asked him.

He stood. I nodded acknowledgment; here was a man who didn’t care to speak from his knees.

“I am the leader of this caravan,” he said. His voice was deep, cautious, but not afraid. “The documents you require are in my tent, behind me.”

“You prepared poorly for us,” I pointed out. “We only lost two, and we have all your goods and slaves.”

“It wasn’t my plan. Heydar is the head of the guards. You would not have been so successful if I had planned the camp.”

It was rude to belittle another’s honorable victory -- unless it were true. I placed the point of my sword an inch from his throat. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired.

His black eyes ignored the blade and directed his chin towards a depression not far away. “I would have camped there. It can only be approached quietly from two directions, the loose rock makes it difficult for horses, and the broad, flat places between would have provided ample warning for an attack. We would have seen you coming long before you were within striking distance.”

I thought about it, and then sheathed my sword. “My name is Tyr t’Pol, caravan leader.”

He inclined his head briefly. “Ketrick, former War Leader of Gerras. Perhaps it’s just as well that we didn’t arrive in Tulem.”

“How so?”

“I was not popular with Heydar, a humorless man. I’m sure that I would have been unemployed as soon as the King heard from one of his favorites.”

“It’s unfortunate when one lacks a sense of humor, and kings are notorious for favoritism. This is a bad time to be out of favor, Ketrick. Is this a way of telling me that you won’t make ransom?”

His next breath came slowly: the alternative for ransom was usually life in the silks.

“I have value. I’m an excellent weapons master,” he said.

I liked his equanimity. He was in a tough spot and had my sympathy, but it was not my decision. “Only the Gods know a man’s fate,” I said, a standard reply to an optimist.

I pushed aside the tent flap and entered with him. Ketrick showed me the inventories. I passed the list to Der to organize a party to collect our new belongings, and moved on.

Segregated from the men, a half-dozen freewomen in dresses of wool and silk huddled together, keeping their distance from us and a cluster of slaves that shivered in slave tunics. As Raid Leader, I had first rights to the slaves, and tested a raven-haired beauty. She responded well when I ran the tip of my whip along her inner thighs. I found her hot and wet, unsurprising, considering she was captured in the heat of battle. She moaned delightfully, writhing against her restraints.

A freewoman snorted her disgust. I turned, intrigued. If the freewoman’s family did not send ransom, she would join the others in slave silk, but that was not the only way a woman acquired the collar and brand. Technically, she was only free on my authority. She wore her long brown hair coiled high on her head with a straight fall over her back in Tulem fashion, and she was prettier than average. If she were what I suspected, she might make a fine abduction. Curious, I strode towards her.

When she perceived my interest, her green eyes bore into mine, in shock at first, then abruptly averting her gaze. I examined her, taking my time as any man would a potential purchase, moving her face from side to side, inspecting her for defects and clues to her true nature.

A tiny red indentation marred the perfection of her right earlobe, a sign that, at some time in the recent past, she had affixed an earring there, the slave’s place. No doubt, she had looked at herself in the mirror, imagining what it would be like to belong to a man. Likely, she had kept it on for many hours in the privacy of her apartments. There was no other rational explanation for it. She blushed when I rolled it between thumb and forefinger, and by the way the girl moved under my scrutiny, I saw enough to form an opinion.

Her eyes climbed my chest to rest on my face. What she saw there caused her to inhale, place her hands on her hips, and glare. In the mood now, I smiled, imagining her with an attractive collar, naked and scented in my pelts. Her act of rebellion had only separated her legs and made her breasts rise and fall invitingly. I wondered if she was aware that her defiance made her femininity that much more obvious. I put my hand to the side of her face and stroked her cheek. Staring at me like a bird before a cat, she moved into it before she could catch herself. Her tongue licked her lips, and her eyes opened wide in terror.

“Do you wish to submit to me?” I asked her.

“N … no!” she gasped.

I smiled. We both knew that part of her wished otherwise.

“As you say,” I said. I turned and walked away, leaving her stifling a sob. She could delay becoming who she truly was -- perhaps forever -- but she now knew in her female heart that she had the slave gene and that, on the deepest level, she would be happiest branded and in chains at the feet of her master.

My men had already separated the guards into two groups: the guards who fought as men, and those who did not. The latter were chained at the right ankle. It wasn’t difficult to find Heydar in the lineup of the fortunate; his engraved chest plate reflected the plains. His blue and green tunic was trimmed in gold fur, and he wore the purple sash of the King’s service around his waist. He was fairly large, with a slightly hooked nose and black hair, typical of Tulem’s Giovanni branch of the aristocracy. I thought the sneer that twisted his thin mustache was out of place considering his uncomplicated defeat.

“What amuses you, Heydar?” I asked from my horse. His gaze took in my light armor and condition of my mount before locating my face, an aristocrat’s attempt to identify my class. I liked him less.

“I was thinking how all this will avail Batuk nothing.”

That was a puzzling comment. Every caravan captured meant more pressure from the merchants on the King of Tulem to reconfirm the old border he had mysteriously decided to alter a few months before. His reasoning baffled me: Batuk and Tulem were loose rivals, but Batuk had never desired another’s territory and hadn’t been in a war for a century. The border dispute hurt Tulem hardest, with its richer caravans and trade.

I grinned. “Indeed? It would appear that Tulem is just a whiff of its former glory. It needs a good spanking from a real city … or an injection of true men.”

I had gauged him properly; he was a fool.

“You’ll see true men when the Fortress…” he replied with a growl before stopping himself.

I leaned closer. “When the Fortress what?” I demanded.

“When the Fortress decides to make a new treaty with Tulem,” he finished weakly, scowling.

He knew something; I was sure. I would like to have pried it from the rhadus, but torture without a declared war is forbidden. I gave him a parting glare and rode off.

I ordered most of the surviving caravan guards to be taken off the road a few miles, then released with their weapons and armor. The four deemed cowardly remained behind with us. Joining their ranks was Ketrick, the one member of the caravan who would be unlikely to make ransom. My men collared them, and secured them with chains inside a wagon with iron bars.

We took the gold, jewels, silks and anything we could carry easily, leaving the rest behind, prudent, considering what the extra weight could mean to a determined pursuit. As soon as the sun cleared the horizon, I gave the order to move.

We kept to the little-used passes, tossing peppers behind us from time to time to make the dogs wary, and camped without fire that night. About mid-morning the next day, we left the scrub brush of the trails and turned onto the main road. From there, the Fortress in the distance was a beacon to bring us home. I took a moment to fondle the slave I'd taken, now riding in front of me. Her nipples rose nicely, and her warm, soft body leaned back against me with a sigh.

“Have you ever been to Batuk?” I asked her.

“No, Master. I know nothing of the northern plains. My former Master bought me in Olwen two months ago.” She twisted enough to glance back at me, low and coy. “I would like to learn about your city, Master, if would like to teach me,” she purred.

I smiled. Everything she had done so far told me that she wanted me to keep her, but the last thing I needed was another slave.

“You will be sold within the week.” At her frown, I added, “Your next master will possibly be from Batuk. Undoubtedly, he would be pleased if you knew something of his home. If you want to listen, I'll tell you.”

Her expression lifted again. “If you please, Master.”

“It would please me.” I had her look forward and pointed. “Nearly a thousand years ago, my ancestors settled this region. At that time, the Fortress was a hill of solid black rock thrusting a hundred yards above the plain. They cut the top flat and built it. The walls are a hundred feet tall, thirty feet thick, and two miles long. Behind it, to the north, is the Undine River, and beyond that, part of the Dagon mountain range. Surrounding it to the south, east and west is the city, itself surrounded by a fifty-foot wall.” For the next few hours, I described more of the city and its people.

We approached the Lion Gate, the main entrance in the south, in late afternoon. Vendors just inside the walls shouted their wares, and I'd smelled the familiar aroma of sausages, spiced chicken, and grilled ham and beef for the past mile. It was the first and last place in Batuk for most who came and went; a place to eat; drink siolat or tea, hot or cold, depending on the season; take a bath, and it had a ready supply of alcove girls for those who couldn’t wait to get to the siolat taverns further in. As we drew close, I let her down and lashed the line on her collar to a ring on my saddle. Unless there was a good reason, slaves walked in Batuk.

I waved to a man I recognized, the Gatemaster in the east tower, a sometimes drinking and wenching friend. “Ho, Bal t’Con!”

“Welcome back, Tyr,” he replied, watching the line of wagons pass by under his steel cone helmet. “It looks like a good haul. Is there a wench for me, or will I have to steal one?”

“You are always welcome to try,” I said, grinning.

Turning east down the Wall Road, I brought Ron forward, and sent a rider ahead to spread the word of our homecoming. When we entered the grounds of my family’s estate, the gardeners and housekeepers were outside the main house.

Ron and Der secured the wagons, and the men and freewomen who were likely to be ransomed were quartered where they would be comfortable. The rest were chained inside the slave quarters on the other side of the grounds.

A servant girl addressed me just before I entered: “Tyr t’Pol, your father is in the main sitting room.”

I nodded and pushed through the outer door, carved in the likeness of an eagle in flight. I found my father, Pol t’Pak, standing with my older brother, Met, beneath a display of weapons. Father was impassive, but that was expected; there would be no greeting until I made my report.

When I finished, Father grinned his approval. Met was less pleased. Until recently, he had been the undisputed heir to Eagles. Questionable business dealings and a suspicious attempt on our father’s life had put that in jeopardy. I didn’t trust him, but at twenty-seven, I wasn't too excited about a succession that might not take place for a century.

Father stepped forward, grasping my forearm, his brown eyes under thick eyebrows shining fierce and proud. “Excellent,” he said. He ordered a servant to bring us three mugs of siolat. After I cleared the road dust from my throat, we spoke of more mundane affairs, and that's when I remembered:

“Father, the caravan leader claims to be a former war leader from some city named Gerras. I don’t think he’ll make ransom, but we might be able to use him as a weapons master.”

“Weapons master.” Met sneered.

I turned towards my older brother and spoke, careful to keep my voice even. “If he’s as good as he thinks he is, then maybe he can teach us something. If not, then the men will have another to please them in the pelts.”

My father furrowed his brow, considering it slowly. “It’s unorthodox, but deal with him as you think best, Tyr.” He clapped me on the back and grimaced. “You make pigs smell like roses. Clean up and come to supper.”

“Yes, Father.”

I returned to my quarters on the upper floor. Angel and Wanda heard me approach and waited for me prostrate on the thick rugs of the floor, as I had taught them.

“Rise, both of you,” I commanded.

Angel was the taller of the two, a blond-haired blue-eyed beauty from Ademar I had captured myself. There was something of the cat within her, arrogant, sensuous and flowing, that had attracted my attention. She hadn’t been easy to abduct, screaming like a demoness before I could gag her, and I’d barely escaped with my life. Afterwards, I’d showed her her true self beneath the stars, and ignited her. In less than a week, she had begged me to make her my slave.

Wanda was shorter and leaner with black hair and green eyes, and was nearly a century older than Angel, not a very important distinction with the anti-aging drugs of the Overlords. I had originally bought her to teach Angel new ways of pleasing me and ended up keeping her.

Initially, there were some difficulties. Two slaves are never bound to get along completely, and the wise master will show latitude, allowing them to come to their own arrangements. Fighting is permitted as long as one slave does not actually damage another. Often, such fights are to a master’s advantage, as slaves will fight to win favor with their master. In Angel and Wanda’s case, they had arrived at an understanding early on. Angel was first girl.

“Angel, prepare a bath.”

“Yes, Master,” Angel replied. She bowed and left, leaving me with a flash of a smile and an immodest blue gleam in her eyes.

“Wanda, clean my clothes and armor.”

“Yes, Master,” Wanda said. She took my clothes, chain mail and breastplate as I deposited them at her feet. They would be fresh and polished in the morning.

Naked, I approached the bath, already filled with hot water. I glanced at Angel approvingly for her initiative. She removed her slave tunic with a single motion over her head and joined me, using the sponge with soap to clean my body. She concentrated too much on my torso, and I shook my head, placing my hand on her cheek. “Not now, Angel, just get me ready for supper.”

She bowed her head, pouting slightly. “Yes, Master.”

Under her slim hands, I relaxed for the first time in a week. After I was clean and dried, I looked in the mirror. I could have stood another shave, but the victory supper wouldn’t wait. Angel had already set out a loose shirt, black trousers, and a tunic in the Eagles colors of orange and brown. Pleased with her, I took her naked body to my chest, and pressed my lips to hers, demanding everything with a master’s kiss that left her gasping, weak, and wet. I laughed as she moaned in delicious misery; she would be ready for me tonight.

For this special occasion, the privacy curtain that normally separated the family’s high table from the lower tables was opened, and the celebration was already in progress. I entered the hall from the common entrance with the men shouting my name and pounded their mugs. I took my place at the high table, to the right of my older brother, but did not sit. Lifting my flagon, I looked down, meeting their gaze with my own, my brothers in the dance of death.

“To the men of Eagles!” I shouted, and then drained the siolat in one long gulp, wiping my chin on my sleeve. The men pounded their mugs again.

My older brother frowned. I paid him no attention. He had led forces before. If he was not as successful as I, it was hardly my problem.

The rest of the feast went as such things go. After a while, Father ordered the curtains drawn to avoid offending Mother and Tisa, but the material was not thick enough to conceal the haunting melody and the howls of the men as they watched a dancing slave.

Although I wished to see her dance, I understood. Few freewomen wish to be abducted, and far fewer would admit it if they did. A slave is a possession, has no rights, and is permitted nothing her master does not give. Besides reminding them of their vulnerability, some freewomen secretly dread that they might be natural slaves who would happiest branded and collared, and their disdain for slaves is often rooted in that fear. In reality, there are some women who should be slaves, and many more who should not. It simply is.

Eventually, I took my leave. I met Tisa in the hall outside. Like me, she had blond hair and blue eyes, the only two in our family who resembled our mother. She waved me to her side with a quick, nervous motion.

“Tisa, is something wrong?”

She glanced furtively down the hall, then led me to the shadows. “Tyr, you’re in danger,” she whispered. “Met is plotting something terrible.”

“And what is our dearest older brother up to now?”

“He hates you; I saw the way he looked at you when you came back. Whenever your name is mentioned, he puts forth the smile of the insincere.”

That was nothing new. “Anything specific?”

She looked up, frowning. “What do you expect, a plot with his signature on it? It’s the same but worse. I worry about you.”

“I’m already on my guard. This is bizarre enough to wonder if I’m worrying about nothing, that he could be playing some malicious game. What could he gain by my death? Father would suspect, and the men would never follow him if they thought that he’d murdered me.”

“Met was never as rational as you -- maybe he thinks he’s smart enough to concoct a foolproof plan.”

“By the Gods, Met wasn’t always like this,” I sighed.

“His younger brother is a little better at everything, a hard thing to forgive.”

I shrugged. There was nothing I could do about that. “Thanks for the warning, Tis’. I’ll try to stay in plain sight and take fewer chances.”

She gripped my hand tightly with both hands. “That is all I could ask for. Have a good evening.” She gave me a last smile then headed back to her quarters.

I ran up the stairs and turned the corner to my room. Angel was waiting for me on the floor, alone. I grinned. No doubt, first girl was making sure that Wanda was busy cleaning my armor.

“Rise, Angel,” I said.

Some prefer their slave to do everything for them, and I admit that it has its points. Too often, though, the practice leads to laziness and lack of initiative. I preferred to do things myself when it was more efficient. Waiting for a slave to remove my clothes was too much like using a hatchet to cut down a tree instead of an ax: both get the job done, but the ax is the proper tool.

The music in the hall, and dimly, the cries of girls in the barracks satisfying men and receiving satisfaction in return, penetrated my room. The captured slaves were theirs until they could be sold, and ten more had been hired for the evening. Such sounds bothered Tisa, who had no experience with such things, not so much Mother, who was practically immune to it after nearly a hundred years of marriage to a warrior.

To me it spoke of hurried brolling. When I had the time, I found it worth the effort to bring a slave along slowly. I had no wish to deny a girl the full depth of her mastery. It was, after all, common knowledge that a slave could only be truly happy when she knows that she is completely owned.

I removed my clothes and tossed them aside. The fur rug arose between my toes, free from confinement.

Angel’s eyes traversed my naked body. “Master, I have missed your touch,” she said.

I doubted that she would have that complaint in the morning. I pointed to a place in front of me. “Kneel,” I said. She stepped forward and knelt at my feet with legs spread slightly in the slave position, large blue eyes looking up at me.

By the Gods, I’m fortunate to own her.

I selected a long leather cord from the wall, and used it to tie her hands behind her back, and then to her feet. She could now neither move her hands, nor rise. I stood in front of her. “Please me,” I said.

“Yes Master,” she replied.

In her position, of course, she was forced to use her mouth and tongue. This tends to concentrate a girl’s mind. The original training I had given her had made her adequate, but with Wanda’s guidance, she was now considerably better. In fact, after a couple of weeks in the field with only an average slave for relief at the end, it was nearly too good, and I stopped her before it went farther than I liked. As expected, the experience had been good for her: she was flushed and I didn’t need to check her to know that she was very wet.

“Master, won’t you let me please you?” she pleaded.

“No. Not yet.”

“Please, Master, why?”

I frowned. “Perhaps I should summon Wanda. I doubt that she would ask so many questions.”

“She is beautiful.”

“Truth,” I replied.

“But not as beautiful as I.”

I smiled. “Perhaps not, but she is very skilled.”

“True,” she said, her face glum. “Please, Master, release me from my bonds. I can’t even rise.”

I reached over and took her breast in my hand. The heat from it was unusual; within a circle of dark pink, her nipple was a hard cone. “That is my intent. You will please me tonight, Angel.”

“Yes, Master,” she said, “I will do my best to please you.”

“That was not a request.”

Angel gazed up at me from her place at my feet, helpless, and through tiny but revealing movements, I knew her need.

“Yes, Master,” she said, head bowed once again.

I released her bonds. She stood naked before me, her lips spread slightly, her body leaning towards mine, aching for my touch. I picked her up and put her before me onto the soft furs, placing her to my best advantage. As she writhed slowly, there was no resistance, just a touch of surprise, as if she even now learned something of herself.

It had been a long two weeks. I permitted her only the movements I desired. Her lips yielded delightfully. It is said that the lips of a slave girl are nothing like a freewoman’s. This is true, for a slave girl, once she knows she is helpless to resist, yields utterly and becomes her true self.

I paused a moment, allowing her to struggle beneath me. Her inner fire already burned deep. “Do you wish to be free, Angel?” I inquired.

“No, I want to be your slave, Master!” she cried.

“I may sell you tomorrow.”

“Yes, Master. Then I would have to please another!”

“What is your deepest wish?”

“To be mastered, to know I am helpless in your arms!” she panted. “I want to be a complete woman!”

I laughed. “Don’t worry, Angel, my beautiful slave. You will have no choice.”

I took her then, slowly, and the screams of a slave, free only to be a woman, joined the other sounds of the night.

I awoke before dawn. Angel lay to my right and Wanda on my left. I didn’t remember Wanda there earlier. This could only mean that she had finished cleaning and polishing my armor and leather. I didn’t blame her for being there; I had not explicitly forbidden her from joining us and I encourage initiative in my slaves. I imagined her in the darkness, easing her way into the pelts. It had taken some skill not to awaken me. I yawned and stretched, dislodging Angel and Wanda’s hands from my chest. This had the expected result; they both awoke.

“Angel, lay out my clothes for the day. I will be practicing in the yard this morning.”

She rubbed her eyes and yawned, but recovered quickly. “Yes, Master.” She frowned when she saw Wanda. I had a feeling that second girl would be getting an earful and perhaps a beating, but such things were the slaves’ affair and meant little to me.

“Wanda, where is my armor?”

She rose to her elbows, her long black hair cascading behind her head. “Master, your armor is mounted on the wall for your inspection.”

I nodded. I would inspect it when the sun came up. In the meantime, I was hungry. I donned the rough orange and brown practice clothes and turned at the door. “You may eat now. Do not be long returning.” I left for the hall and breakfast.

The Great Hall was nearly full when I entered. The grins exchanged that morning told me enough. They had earned their celebration, but I didn’t want them complacent. Father had told me the previous night that the raid had been too easy. If they thought the rest of this half-war was going to be the same, especially if it turned into an all-out war, they were mistaken. Although of the warrior class, there had been peace in Batuk for too long.

The banter subsided as they noticed the clothes I wore. I waved Ron and Der to my table. “We will have practice at the seventh hour. I expect everyone there with their gear.”

“They’ll be there,” replied my younger brother.

Der smiled. “Yes, they will.”

Practice was not the only reason to get them together.

Several centuries ago, a noblewoman and slave trader, Vanora, bitter that only women had the slave gene, determined that men would have the same chance at the brand and collar. She had Ruk, a brilliant physician, create an unprecedented serum that would make a man a woman -- and a natural slave.

To a warrior, to become a woman was bad enough. A woman’s world was his antithesis. Still, as horrifying the thought of becoming an ordinary freewoman might have been, with Ruk’s Serum, even that small dignity was nearly impossible. Vanora’s revenge on men ensured that practically any man who became a woman was destined for slavery. In addition to the natural slave gene, a serum girl’s urges remained as powerful as the man she used to be, more powerful than ordinary women.

This would be an important day in the lives of the four bedraggled guards we’d kept. As cowards, they would be given the choice this morning: Ruk’s Serum and slavery -- or death.

When the gong struck, a low, penetrating sound that could be heard for miles, we were assembled on the practice field. Called Hadrian’s Gong for reasons lost in history, it was struck twice a day, once at the seventh hour and once at the nineteenth or twentieth, depending on the season. Its sounding directed the opening and closing of the city gates.

I motioned Der to read the charges for the first man, a lean, unhappy fellow.

Der read the words solemnly: “Reder of Tulem, you turned your back on a warrior during a fight. Which do you choose, death or Ruk’s Serum?”

He sighed, and looked down in shame, “Ruk’s Serum,” he said quietly. Der marked his choice on a record.

I gestured to a physician, who stepped forward and injected the man in the arm with a syringe. Two guards led him off to the slave quarters.

“Kedlos of Tulem, you ran from an even fight while guarding a tent. Which do you choose, death or Ruk’s Serum?”

The shorter man with the full face and thick torso took a long look at the array of faces among my men, aware that he might be facing them again soon under very different circumstances. He closed his eyes and said, “Ruk’s Serum.”

The physician injected his arm and he was led off to join the other.

“Halter of Tulem, you gave up to a single warrior after a minor wound to your shield arm. Which do you choose, death or Ruk’s Serum?”

The tall warrior in skins regarded Der in fury. “It was not a minor wound! I could barely move my arm.”

“Der, who accused this warrior?” I asked.

Der checked the sheet. “Yed t’Lothen.”

“Yed,” I called. He stepped forward from the ranks and faced me. He was large and very strong, one of my older veterans. “Do you wish to retract your statement? He seems more lively today.”

“No, Tyr t’Pol. I saw what I saw. He could have fought on. He didn’t.”

The physician examined the wound. “He seems to have healed well, Tyr t’Pol. I see only a minor injury,” he concluded.

There was only sure way to know. “Yed, are you willing to fight him? It would be to the death.”

He gave me a powerful grin. “I’d be willin’, if he is.”

Halter stared long, then turned the corners of his mouth down in disgust. “Ruk’s Serum.”

I slapped Yed on the back and chuckled. “For that, you may name her.”

He rubbed his chin, thinking. “I’ve always liked ‘Flower,’” he decided.

I laughed, as did several of the men. Halter, soon to be Flower, could only look on at a glimpse of his future as the needle bit into his arm. Then, he too, was dragged off.

Der addressed the fourth warrior: “Terrence of Tulem, you tripped over your own feet backing up trying to escape and were easily captured. Which do you choose, death or Ruk’s Serum?”

“Death,” he replied coldly. “I am no coward. Kill me.”

I didn’t like the charge, particularly. Warriors could slip on a bad patch of ground, and, as to running away, one might reasonably retreat to a better place to fight. “Allow him to choose a practice sword,” I said. I removed my protective tunic and selected my favorite from the rack. A wooden sword could be deadly without protection, but short of steel, there was no better way to get a feel for combat.

Terrence was wiry, and selected a sword slightly shorter than mine. I would have a small reach advantage, but it would mean little. As a stabbing weapon, the wood was too blunt. We began. He was fairly fast and I was moderately hard-pressed at first. It was obvious who the better swordsman was after the first few strokes, but I was impressed at his ferocity. I allowed it to go on for about a minute before I was satisfied. Finally, I backed-up and raised my hand. “Stop. Put down the sword.”

“I would rather die with the sword in my hand!”

“As Marten wills, but not today.” I turned to Der. “Return his arms and armor. Give him a horse and a three-day supply of rations.”

Der made a notation in the record.

Terrence stood rock still. “You mean I’m free to go?”

“Unless you’d like to join Flower. You are not a coward. Try to watch your footwork next time.”

I directed my attention to the last man in line. “Ketrick, do you really think you’re qualified to be Weapons Master? It will be the Serum if you fail.”

He grinned. “A chance to prove myself is all I need,” he said calmly.

I liked his confidence. “You’ll have your chance this morning.”

I matched him against my best men. For the two-handed sword, I gave him Fash t’Lelem. Fash was quick and very strong; normally he overpowered his opponents with powerful, accurate strikes, almost never over-committing. Ketrick watched him warm-up then chose a lighter sword. He chose not to match strength on strength, but gave Fash an apparent opening for an overhand strike, then deflected it deftly to the side. He then defeated Fash with an utterly ruthless attack in a short choppy style I had not seen before.

Reth t’Jake was bested when Ketrick went under his shield and whacked a blow to his shin that made me wince, leaving him groaning on the ground.

I put myself against him with the heavy, or long spear. About ten feet long, it is often used as the primary weapon at close range. The blade of a real spear is strong but relatively narrow and about a foot and a half in length. With tines, it can pull down a rider. In the hands of a competent spearman, it is often preferred to the sword. When a master uses it there is no greater weapon. I was acknowledged a master. After seeing Ketrick dispose of two of our best, I was also a wary master.

“Ketrick,” I asked, as he chose his practice spear, “are you sure you wish to continue? Eagles will always have room for another serum girl.”

He grinned, selecting an unusually large piece of wood. I considered his choice: some men used a size or two too large for their weight and strength.

“No doubt your offer is well meant, but I prefer life above the silks.”

I watched as he spun the spear to capture its feel. He was disconcertingly fast. I wasn’t sure if I was any faster. “Well, I will try not to injure you too severely,” I offered.

“That is gracious of you, as I am often clumsy. In the unlikely event my spear should touch you, I, in turn, will not attempt permanent damage.” He clamped his thick wire-mesh helmet shut and planted his spear by his right foot. “I am ready, Tyr t’Pol.”

I’d been examining Ketrick all along for weaknesses, and had found little. He was slightly taller and perhaps fifteen pounds heavier. For such a large man, he was unusually agile. His familiarity with the spear spoke of long practice.

There was only one way to find out. I brought my spear down and ran straight at him, hoping to catch him off guard. He brought his own spear into a defensive position and tried to twist my thrust into the ground, a rare and tricky maneuver that almost worked. My thrust had been a feint, though, and I slipped his trap, even coming very close to whacking his chest before he struck my spear away with a clean “crack!” at the last instant. More careful now, I still took the fight to him, coming close on occasion, very close with a feint-attack combination that he barely blocked on pure reflex.

“That was superbly done. You are uncommonly good with the spear,” he said.

Then it was his turn. Deciding that he couldn’t play defense and win, he launched an attack that I barely held off, nearly braining me with a blow that would have, at the least, knocked me out through the padded helmet. I didn’t blame him for that. Ketrick fought for his life as a man. Regardless, I had no intention of telling him that he had won his position already. Honor demanded that there be a victor.

“Ketrick, this is your last chance to surrender! Think, with your fighting skills, you would surely be first girl!”

He laughed as if it were funny, and attacked in earnest. This time, neither of us backed off an inch. After long seconds of thrusts and counter thrusts, his superior weight and strength took its toll; he pushed my shaft wider than I liked and smacked a blow that nearly broke one of my ribs, not a fatal wound under real conditions, but certainly disabling.

Der yelled, “Touch!” and we stopped. Straightening brought pain: My ribs would be sore tonight and probably for days.

I walked to Ketrick’s side, taking care not to show weakness in front of my men, and removed my helmet. “I will accept you as Weapons Master for one year in lieu of ransom.”

His black eyes shone, and we each clasped each other’s right arm. “Your terms are acceptable, Tyr t’Pol.”

My men cheered, including the two he had defeated earlier. His addition would make us all stronger.

“Good,” I said. “After lunch I’ll instruct the housekeepers to prepare quarters for you in the main house. Your clothes and possessions will be returned to you. Do you have any particular requirements?”

He shook his head. “I would like to watch the men for the remainder of the practice. What are my duties?”

“You will be expected to go on raids, train, fight and give advice when necessary. Unless otherwise informed, you are free when Hadrian’s Gong strikes the evening hour until the breakfast hour.”

“You are generous. I might have served longer, considering the option.”

“It was a fair bargain. It’s what the value of your ransom would have been -- no more, no less.” I slapped his back and left to see the physician in the slave quarters. My ribs were beginning to bother me.

The physician was attending the men he’d injected with Ruk’s Serum. All three had been stripped and collared to their beds. Normally, Ruk’s Serum puts the man or woman into a death-like slumber. As an act of kindness to former warriors, I offered the use of a drug that allowed them to watch their transformation. Only Reder accepted. For an hour in every twelve, he would watch his progress in a mirror placed over his bed before settling back to dreamless sleep.

My wound wasn’t bad, the physician decided, but would require closure. He cleaned it, pulled the skin together, and affixed a patch. I was about to leave the infirmary when Reder called my name.

I came to his bed. “Yes, Reder?”

“Tyr t’Pol, what is to become of me?”

“I thought that was obvious. You are to be a pleasure girl for the men of Eagles. If you please us then you will remain. If you do not, you will be sold.”

He moaned. I noticed that his face was softening. Naturally, with the mirror, he was aware of this as well. “I was first born. My family will be disgraced,” he said.

I patted his hand, not a gesture to warriors, but one used to comfort women. “It’s unlikely that you will ever return to Tulem to cause embarrassment.” I shrugged. “It happens; your family will understand and have another son. Relax and accept your new life. Like any serum girl, you will enjoy being used well and often.”

“Gods,” he said, his voice an hysterical whisper, “my father told me that he’d make me a girl if I didn’t do well on my first assignment. It seems you saved him the trouble.”

“Reder, you turned your back and ran,” I said, annoyed: men should not whine, especially warriors.

He shook his head quickly. “It’s not like that. I deserve what I'm getting. At the critical moment I decided that it wasn’t worth my life to protect trade goods, and put my fellow guards in peril. And now I am trade goods.”

I smiled at the joke, for that was what it was, even though his eyes were half-wild with fear. “A man may make a mistake, but there is honor facing it,” I quoted.

“Then as long as I have my suren, I’ll face it as a man.” He lay back and closed his eyes. I was rising when he reached up and grabbed my shirt. “What will I look like, Tyr t’Pol?”

I was curious myself. I spoke to the physician, then returned.

“You will be beautiful, with chestnut hair, brown eyes, and a sultry smile; a little shorter than her.” I pointed to the physician’s assistant, a taller than average freewoman in a long woolen dress and veil.

He swallowed hard, but he absorbed the news without comment. “Thank you. What will my new name be?”

“Whatever your master decides, Reder.” I gave his hand a last pat, got up and left.

Warriors don’t need much of a reason to drink and brol; the excuse that night was to welcome Ketrick to Eagles. Mindful of Tisa’s warning, I reserved the private room at The Silks, a tavern where I knew the owner. Like most buildings in Batuk, it was constructed of stone, with solid beams for the high slate roof, which gave it an airy feel, and plenty of space for the oil lamp smoke to rise before being evacuated by vents.

Tile and glass murals built into the walls presented famous scenes of Zhor: the markets of Harn, the Yellow Palace, and the Gate of Kiltar with the Resting Mountains in the background, among others. For that special night, bright tapestries dangled from the ceiling, displaying slaves in various positions of interest to men.

A raised stage, about ten feet in diameter, was the room’s main feature. Set around the perimeter were lamps with mirrors positioned to illuminate its occupant, now annoyingly absent -- our entertainment was late.

I sat with Ron and Der on my right and the guest of honor to my left. Our table stood a little too far from the stage to have the best view, but I wanted my back to the wall. Ketrick noticed, but said nothing.

Some of my warriors pounded their mugs at the delay, others amused themselves with the siolat girls, already hard pressed to keep fifty warriors in drink. Fortunately, for all concerned, it wasn’t too long before the doors to the main tavern opened.

Two musicians walked through the door, one carrying a set of hand drums under each arm, and the other with a zylar, holding the array of metal plates to his chest as if it were a woman. The dancing slave followed in translucent yellow pants and sheer top that did nothing to conceal her beauty, with small bells strapped around her ankles and wrists. Behind her was a man dressed as a warrior, an actor for the performance.

The finest dancers are natural slaves with powerful needs, well-ignited and carefully trained. This one was no different. An unconscious twitch of her hip, a side-glance, a casual touch: every movement reflected her intense awareness of the audience.

“Is it the same with slaves in Gerras?” I asked him above the noise as the dancer ascended the stage.

Ketrick’s expression grew distant, as if dusting off an old memory. “Gerras is no more, but it is the same everywhere. Cities have different customs, but the Overlords ensure that some things are universal -- and slaves will always be slaves.”

He spoke as if he knew something of the Overlords. I would have liked to talk further, but the dance was starting. From the first notes on the zylar, I knew it to be “The Capture.”

The girl began in the center, wearing a freewoman’s dress, her body a work of arrogance and boredom. She roamed her world, unconcerned, occasionally brushing the light brown hair from her face. The sweet tones of the zylar rang free and innocent.

The actor dressed as a warrior took the stage behind her and to the side. He pantomimed speaking to her, something respectful and complimentary, but she dismissed whatever he said with a rude gesture. The zylar continued the light tune as he tried once more, this time as politely as a courtier. Again, he was dismissed, this time worse than before, her brown eyes flashing pure conceit. Some in the audience hissed good-naturedly.

The warrior stood back for the moment out of the light, appraising her as she went through her daily activities. The zylar slowed to a somber beat. He moved in and took her, holding her mouth shut while quickly securing her arms expertly behind her back. The zylar and the drums worked together to show efficient work, while hinting at the girl’s fear. A large robe was thrown onto the stage, and the warrior threw it over himself and the struggling girl. Many in the audience cheered.

When the robe was withdrawn, the warrior was gone. The woman lay on the stage with a collar around her neck and most of her clothing missing. The zylar returned to the innocent tones of before. She appeared to be waking up from a long sleep, and stretched. Brushing back her hair, her hand touched her collar. Her surprise was well done and many in the audience laughed. She rose to her feet and discovered her lack of clothing. Her attempts to cover herself were hilarious, and practically the whole room burst into laughter, including me.

She finally gave up and walked a few paces until a chain connecting her collar to an iron ring brought her up short. Frightened now, the music bespoke her panic as she discovered her condition. She strained at her chain, but to no avail: she was helpless. Shock and uncertainty entered her movements. The warrior returned. She tried desperately, but her futility only displayed her body prettily. He moved in and collected her, once again tying her in a slaver’s knot. Exposed and defenseless on the floor, kneeling with her legs spread, she could only move as the warrior wished.

She looked at him then, her demeanor changing from fear to fascination. The music took on an hypnotic quality. He cupped her breasts. She tried to fight it at first, but found it impossible, and swayed helplessly. Her jaw dropped, horrified at her body’s betrayal. His hand reach between her legs, and the girl finally gave up any pretense of denying her pleasure -- and need. She leaned forward, demanding his touch; the warrior had discovered that this arrogant freewoman was a natural slave.

He kissed her, and she softened to his will. He released her arms and waited. Looking into his eyes the whole time, she slowly, hardly believing what she was doing, crossed her arms and bowed her head, submitting to him as a slave. The robe was thrown over them again. The zylar and drums sped up and built to a crescendo, signifying the igniting of a new slave. The robe flew away, and the girl came alive, dancing the way only the utterly uninhibited can dance, proudly, without a hint of shame. The music turned wild, frenzied, and free.

She needed now to be touched by a strong man, a man who would keep her fully under control and subject to his desires. This was no act anymore; it was clear to me, having two slaves of my own, that she was in the deepest thrall. The dance ended with the music. She collapsed on the stage, her chest heaving.

I pounded the table with the rest. A man near me grabbed a siolat girl’s hand and dragged her away. Another, more impatient, simply threw the squealing girl over his shoulder. Our guest of honor drained his siolat, then stood.

“If you don’t want to wait for a girl, Ketrick, I have two in my quarters. You may have Wanda, a skilled passion slave.”

He grinned and rolled his eyes towards the middle of the room. “You are generous, but the one I seek for the night is on stage.”

“The entire night with an aroused serum girl? The way she looks, she could satisfy half the men here.”

“I could have been her if luck hadn’t gone my way this morning. What better way to celebrate one’s manhood?”

He either had an incredible appetite or was full of himself. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then -- if she hasn’t drained you dry.”

“If I must be drained, it doesn’t seem a bad way,” he replied, and left to ask the girl her master's price.

I left with Ron and Der, remaining between them while they looked for assassins in dark corners and rooftops, keeping their knives close at hand, and tensing at passersby. I despised the need for it, and let it show.

“The danger is real,” my younger brother said to me after we returned to the house. “I’m proud to be your extra set of eyes, and you would do the same for me.” I thanked him; we clasped forearms and separated, but the entire affair left me with a fetid stench.

Was Met really planning to kill me, or was he toying with me? Whatever the truth, I detested having to ask warriors to protect me from my own brother; if it wasn’t cowardice, it felt like its cousin.

The next morning, before breakfast, I visited Ketrick’s quarters and announced myself. The dancer from the previous night let me in. Her eyes gleamed, and she wore the languid smile of the well-brolled.

“Goodbye, Master!” she said, as sweet as any bird, bowed generously to us both, and sped out the door. I searched Ketrick for signs of extraordinary fatigue, but there were none.

“Good morning, Tyr t’Pol. I expected to see you,” Ketrick said.

“I thought it best we establish the protocols before you started training the men.”

“Of course. First, I plan to gain their respect. This may take a day or so. Regrettably, the process may injure one or two -- nothing too severe. After that, the real training may begin.”

I laughed. “You have done this before.”

“Once or twice,” he admitted.

As Ketrick predicted, he was challenged. It was just warriors testing themselves. It stopped after two were sent to the infirmary -- one with a broken arm -- a rough pair of demonstrations, but ones that warriors understood. Gradually, I noticed the little things about him: superb balance, concentration, a way of movement difficult to describe -- a deceptively loose and easy defense flowing instantly into a savage attack. There might have been better warriors at individual disciplines, but overall, Ketrick was the best I’d ever seen.

He never bragged or concerned himself too much with rank. Ketrick accorded me full respect as Commander, effortlessly, in a manner that did not diminish him. He remained something of a mystery, aloof but friendly, and had a habit of turning aside personal questions. I grew interested in our new Weapons Master. It would have been impolite to ask him about his past, but there were ways.

The next morning I rode to the Batuk Scholars Institute. The huge columns and high ceilings of its central building was of an older style centuries out of date. Part of it was was a school for those who could afford it, which helped keep the Scholars Guild solvent. The other half was the Institute proper, the library and an annex, where Scholars researched, copied, recorded, and wrote papers.

I tied my horse to the post outside and climbed the broad marble stairs. The Great Hall hadn’t changed from when I’d seen it last, years ago when I’d been to school; maybe the purple carpet was more threadbare, and the voluminous interior was still hard to heat; it retained the night’s cold.

I went to the main visitor’s desk. Mostan Yarr, a scholar and former teacher of mine, manned its environs today. I doubted that he remembered me; I hadn’t been one of his favorites. “Scholar Yarr, I seek information,” I said, using the traditional form of request. He blinked, not recognizing me, yet not surprised that I knew his name. I supposed it was possible that he was now famous throughout Zhor, though I thought it unlikely.

“Who are you, warrior, and what information do you seek?” he asked.

“I’m Tyr t’Pol. I seek information on a war leader from Gerras named Ketrick.”

He considered a moment and checked a list. “You need to see Hana l’Lina in the West Wing. She should be in the main Reading Room. Pay me a silver first, warrior.”

The scholars in the Guild had a high opinion of themselves. “I give you my word that I will give you ten coppers after I find Hana l’Lina, and if she can answer a simple question. Is that sufficient, Scholar?”

He grimaced. “I suppose that will do,” he said with poor grace.

I nodded and left. Hana l’Lina was not in the Reading Room. She was on a ladder in the Histories Chamber looking for a book on the highest level, twelve feet above the floor. I waited, but she wasn’t inclined to recognize my presence.

“Scholar Hana l’Lina, I’m Tyr t’Pol. I was directed to you to ask a question.”

She looked down. The woman’s face was attractive, although not beautiful. Gray robes with the silver trim of an associate scholar covered most of her feminine attributes. She sighed. “Give me a second.” A moment later she stood next to me. “What can I do for you, warrior?”

“I need information on a war leader named Ketrick of Gerras.”

“Do you know when he existed?”

“I believe that he exists now.”

She regarded me skeptically. “Gerras was a medium-sized city-state in the southeast. It was destroyed in a war almost two hundred years ago. I’ve heard the name before, but I don’t recall the context.” She stood, waiting, as if that should satisfy my warrior’s curiosity.

“I am paying for the information, Scholar.”

She rolled her eyes, defeated. “Very well. Please follow me.”

I followed her to a smaller room. A woman scholar reclined in an upholstered chair by the entrance, a love story resting in her lap and her feet crossed atop a footstool.

“Jara, where is the Gerras reference?” Hana asked her.

Jara looked up long enough to point to the far wall. “Second shelf, a few books from the left end.”

Hana found the book and moved to a table, motioning with her finger to take a seat beside her. She said, “This is the only dedicated history of Gerras we have. It’s over two hundred years old. You understand I can’t vouch for the accuracy, not having anything substantial to cross-reference against?”

“If you say so.”

“Very well.” She skimmed the chapters until she came to a section about halfway through. “This Ketrick was a war leader for King Hartern almost three hundred years ago. Apparently he was quite a colorful character. According to this, he was a superb warrior, although,” she said, giving me a side glance, “I wouldn’t give that too much credence. Too many famous people seem to be great warriors. He was an effective war leader. Under his command, Gerras held off Waer, a city with greater forces, and defeated them. He was adept at trickery and disguise, often going on missions himself.”

“Does the book carry a description of him?”

“Hmm. Tall, swarthy, black hair and eyes, strong, rugged. The usual, really.” She pursed her lips disapprovingly. “Oh, and he seemed to have extraordinary, um, requirements. At one time he had three women he’d abducted in his stable. Does that description match the person you know?”

“Actually, it does.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Truly? Are you sure? That makes him one of the oldest living warriors.”

I agreed. I thanked her, paid the ten coppers, and left. I wasn’t too long getting back. I met Ketrick on the field as he supervised the spear practice.

“Ketrick, I’d like to talk to you about Tulem,” I said.

He barely twitched. “I’ll tell you what I can. Would you like to speak somewhere more private?”

“Yes. Walk with me.” We walked to the edge of the training grounds by the slave quarters, where I stopped and faced him. “I’m concerned. There is no reason I can think of for Tulem to provoke Batuk by disputing borders that have been settled for hundreds of years. You came from Tulem. I want to know what insights you have into the matter.”

He considered, deciding what to say, possibly -- or judging me. I knew him better now. It wasn’t arrogance; Ketrick was confident in the way that comes from knowing one’s own capabilities. Put into its proper context, I remembered seeing something of that look before in the very old, men and women who gazed through the weighty fabric of centuries.

Most were academicians or those who followed some other safe occupation, fortunate enough to survive the daily hazards and war. Their days tended to repeat life rather than to advance it, a cart in a rut, but Ketrick was a warrior, one of those who lived closest to the boundary of life and death. How would such a man see the world after three hundred years? My father, at one hundred twenty-five, was considered ancient. He’d told us once that he’d decided to have three male children to ensure that at least one of us survived to inherit, and he hadn’t been joking.

“I’m an outsider; I doubt that anyone would listen to me.”

“And yet we are here, alone, and I have asked the question.”

He grinned, and I faced the incongruity that the man I had captured and forced to serve Eagles approved of me.

“They’re preparing for war against Batuk. I’d give them about a year before they attack.”

“What? By the Gods, why would they want to attack us?”

“They suffer from an abundance of aristocracy. Tulem has two rival royal families of roughly equal size: the Giovannis and the Borodins. Their numbers have doubled in the last hundred years. Practically the only thing the families agree on is that one family should leave the valley. The conquest of Batuk and the installation of one of the royal families here would be the perfect solution.”

Of all the cities around us, Tulem was the most mysterious. Few from Batuk had been to their valley in the mountains and few from Tulem left their idyllic environs to visit us. “I see. Does their king approve?”

“I’m sure he does. Conditions are ripe for a civil war; King Bruno would want to avoid that as much as anyone.”

“What’s your evidence?”

“Observations, conversations. I have no witnesses or documents.”

“I’m not surprised. Go on.”

“First, I have had experience in similar situations. My claim that I …”

I held up my hand. “You are Ketrick, the former War Leader of Gerras, a city-state in the southeast that was destroyed two hundred years ago. I did some checking.”

He tilted his head to the side slightly, as if to view me from a different perspective. “I’m gratified to hear it, for it would be difficult to prove who I am after all this time. Just out of curiosity, how do you know for certain? How do the records describe me -- tall, handsome, strong, excellent fighter…”

“’Rugged’ was the word the book used. People may change their appearance, but some things usually stay the same. How many freewomen did you abduct and make slaves while you served King Hartern?”

“Hmm. That was a long time ago, but I still remember. The last was a screamer and was nearly my death. There were three.” His expression turned to surprise, and then he laughed heartily. “Gods! Caught out by a serum girl.”

I chuckled as well at life’s twists and ironies. “You were about to explain how you know that Tulem will make war on us.”

He went on to describe a long list: Giovanni and Borodin lords wearing military-style garments in the taverns, word of the nobility training on the field behind the city, exceptional orders for steel, and more that at first made no sense to me, like grumbling from artisans who had had their work canceled for the castles in the valley, meaning that the lords were saving their gold for some other purpose.

“The details are inconsequential by themselves,” he said, “but each is a piece of a puzzle that forms the preparations for war.”

“And your assessment of a war with Batuk and Tulem?”

“Batuk would lose.”

“What?”

“You have no real army to defend yourself. Batuk thinks it’s invulnerable because of the Fortress. That’s a dream. The Fortress is impressive, but it can be taken.”

The Fortress was, among other thing, our refuge from invaders, with wells sunk hundreds of feet through solid rock, and a year’s supply of food for the entire population. Batuk had never been seriously challenged since it had been constructed. The cost in blood and gold to take it would be incredible.

“How in Hades could Tulem take the Fortress?”

“Treachery and sabotage set in place long beforehand. I believe that there are spies right now who live in the Fortress and the city, biding their time to cause mischief: opening gates to invaders, poisoning wells and stores of food, assassinating key people. Timed right, you couldn’t stop them. If a large enough army attacked Batuk, you would have to retreat to the Fortress. With food and water unavailable, the Fortress would have to surrender.”

I looked to the north where the enormous black Fortress towered over the city, a hill of carved rock, the symbol of strength and security for everyone who lived here, and forced myself to consider the unthinkable. The thought sickened me; if the wrong people were in key places … but there was one glaring discrepancy.

“No. The Overlords wouldn’t allow Tulem to become so powerful. Even if Tulem attacked us, looted the city, and ransomed our citizens, they wouldn’t be permitted to rule here.”

“I’m not so sure that I would depend on our mysterious Overlords. I see it developing this way: You’re already in a conflict with Tulem. Tulem decides to escalate this border war into an attack on the city, on the surface, a legitimate tactic of war. You fight them at your walls, which quickly fall, and then retreat to your Fortress, which surrenders. The new rulers take control, immediately declare a King of Batuk, and sever all ties to their old home.

“Batuk is left largely intact, your people are alive and well -- minus five to ten thousand or so of its citizens -- and Tulem’s rule remains confined to Tulem. Are you positive the Overlords would interfere?”

“That’s horseshit! Batuk would never submit to an invader.”

He looked back with cool black eyes. “I’m sure that when the time comes, you will fight fiercely, but it is difficult to watch women and children starve to death,” he said, the chill in his voice telling me that he spoke from experience. “I do not impugn the bravery of Batuk’s citizens, Tyr t’Pol.”

I took a long, deep breath before addressing him again. Whatever happened would happen. A warrior did not deny reality, he dealt with what the Gods gave him. “I apologize. You did not insult Batuk. Besides, despite all this talk of invasion, there is no proof of anything.”

“None. I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“But you think it likely.”

“It matches the facts as I know them, and it’s what I would do if I were in their position. If you’ve read of the war between Gerras and Weir, you’d know that I’m familiar with this kind of warfare.”

“Assuming that the invasion is real, what could we do about it?”

He shrugged. “A large standing army would help. Expelling those who have recently moved to Batuk would work as well -- say those who have lived here for the past two years or so -- that’s assuming you could locate them, that is. Spies can be hard to find.”

Batuk hadn’t been at war for more than a hundred years. Our elected representatives were men whose qualities included agile tongues and little else. “Nothing that drastic would be approved by the council without absolute proof,” I said.

“As you say.”

I frowned. “We need more than bits and pieces. Spies must be sent to verify what you’ve said.”

“Of course. A meeting with the Batuk Spymaster should suffice. I’d be pleased to talk with him, even blindfolded to protect his identity. Who knows? It’s possible that he has spies in Tulem right now and the situation is well under control.”

I burned with embarrassment, but there was no way to avoid it. “Batuk hasn’t had a spymaster for decades. I would have to tell the council.”

Ketrick’s smile slid into something less pleasant, and I glimpsed his opinion of a city that entrusted its security to politicians. I flushed further. Although I would die for Batuk, I privately agreed.

“Tyr t’Pol, if there is a single spy in Batuk, and, with your entire city wide-open, there must be, then the first place they would penetrate would be your government. Two days after your council decided to send spies, Tulem would know about it, and it’s worse than that: Tulem is not easy to get into.”

“Tulem’s gate?”

“It’s the only way in and out. They screen everyone; they know the names and business of everyone in the valley. It’s hard enough to send spies to Tulem now. If Tulem knew that Batuk was suspicious it would be impossible.”

“And we would never know their plans for us until it was too late.”

“Yes. In fact it’s possible that they created this border conflict to have a plausible excuse to tighten their screening at the gate and hide what they were doing. What’s losing a few caravans compared to gaining an entire city?”

“If I go to the council then we lose the chance to find out what they’re up to. If I don’t, then nothing happens and we remain in ignorance. Although -- I suppose it would be possible to send spies to Tulem without the council’s knowledge.”

Ketrick grinned. “A bold move. It would have to be carefully planned and executed.”

“This is far above my station. My father would know what to do.”

“You must do your duty as you see fit, but unless you’re sure your father believes the threat is real, and wouldn’t take this to the council, I’d have a plan ready before you talk to him and a way to convince him. There’s time to do this right. If you want, I’ll help you.”

Even considering not telling father felt like a betrayal. Still, to Father, Ketrick was simply a foreigner. When I’d told my father of my exchange with Heydar, he had discarded it as youthful imagination -- but I knew what I’d seen.

“Ketrick, why are you so interested in Batuk’s welfare?”

“You haven’t been to Tulem, have you?”

“No.”

He rubbed his chin for a moment. “Tulem lacks the essence of what you and I would find vital and alive. I can’t be much more explicit than that without showing you. And I admit that I like Batuk much better now that I’m not going to be a barracks slut.”

“It’s fortunate that you are so skilled with weapons. You would have made an ugly girl.”

He winced, remembering the other day. “That was too close with you; I haven’t been challenged like that in many years.”

I slapped him on the back. “You were safe after the first series. Even if you had lost to me, you’d have kept your suren.”

“Well, you might have told me,” he chuckled. “I could have cracked your skull. At the very least, you would have saved yourself a nasty bruise.”

I shook my head, looking him in the eye. “No. The men expected to see us fight to the end, and we needed to know how good you were. I don’t regret losing to a more skilled opponent.”

“I agree in general, but testing the principal too often is not the way to a long life. Very well. Whatever happens, this next year should be interesting.”

“Less so if we can do something about it. Think about a plan to get spies into Tulem, and we will speak of this again -- soon.”
 
Chapter 2
 
 
I left Ketrick at the practice field a half-hour before the gong sounded, stopping by the infirmary to have the physician apply a new sealer and patch over my ribs. After this was done, I checked on the new serum girls.

All three were far along, looking more like girls than men. I went to Reder’s side. He was softer. His hips were wider and his genitalia was down to a nub. He had more than just incipient breasts, although his nipples were still small; and he had shrunk a few inches. His face was already attractive, with the potential for great beauty. I thought he was asleep until he raised his eyelids and looked at me; his eyes, now brown, were glazed over in fear.

“Tyr t’Pol …” he said, hesitating at his feminine voice, “... I look like a woman.”

“When next you awaken, you will be a lovely woman. Half of Zhor is women, and you’ll be one of the prettiest. Freewomen will be jealous,” I added, trying to cheer him up. I don’t think I succeeded.

“If I must be a woman, I don’t want to be a slave. I want to be free.”

“As your body remolds itself, so, too, will your thoughts become those of a natural slave. After your training you will embrace your desires. Accept it, Reder; you're a serum girl, and there is no going back.”

“A -- a pleasure slave…” He stared at himself in the mirror above his head. “I’m almost gone now. In a half-day, who will remember Reder?”

I took his hand and gripped it tightly. “I will remember. Tell me about yourself. Where do you come from; who were your friends; who is Reder?”

He smiled very slightly. For the rest of the hour before Reder fell back into the dreamless sleep he told me who he was. While he spoke, the last bit of his manhood withdrew inside, and a woman’s crease formed. Reder, now a girl, watched me the entire time and didn’t notice, and I didn’t mention it.

I was outside the infirmary the next morning when the men in black leather from the Slavers Trainers Guild led our serum girls away. They were naked, in chains, and all of them wept, having been given their first taste of discipline from the slave whip, a contrivance designed to sting a girl’s soft skin, but not to leave marks. They were all beauties, of course: Kedlos, the redhead, the smallest and most frightened; Halter, the blonde, she of the deliciously rounded hips, and breasts somewhat larger than the others, weeping and angry at the same time; and Reder, now a gorgeous brunette with eyes like a deer, afraid and crying bitter tears.

They were slaves now, although they wouldn’t be branded until later in the day. It was extremely unlikely that they felt the urges yet, but that would come quickly enough under the slavers’ tutelage. It seemed heartless, for I didn’t care to see girls whipped without a reason, even if they were slaves, but it was best not to delay; the sooner they discovered who they were, the better for them, as well as the men they would serve.

They ascended the steps of the wagon and one of the slavers chained them into place from links in their collars. Once they were secured, he stepped down from the cage and went around to join the other in the front. All three girls still cried, rubbing their backs and bottoms, which still stung from the whip, and stared at their surroundings, all so much bigger now, and to themselves, gaping down past soft mounds across an empty expanse to the top of a gap where none had been before.

I watched Reder as they pulled away. For a moment our eyes met. She was terrified; her big brown eyes streamed tears. With a visible effort, she sniffled her last, swept her hair behind her, and stood up straight. I nodded back, proud of her for facing her fate. She would be, I surmised, a popular girl at Eagles, compassionate, outgoing, and strong.

Several days passed. I had asked Ketrick twice about Tulem. He was still thinking, he told me, and I believed him, spotting him on more than one occasion looking towards the south and east where Tulem lay. A week later he approached me in the corridor before breakfast.

“I’ve had some thoughts on the matter,” Ketrick said.

“That’s good, because I still don’t have a clue. I’m beginning to understand how difficult this is. Where do you want to meet?”

“At the Silks, in the room with the dancing girl, two hours after Hadrian’s Gong. You should come alone.”

“Very well.”

Since Ron and Der would not be there to protect my back, I left early and took the back streets, choosing a course down avenues and alleys that turned often but didn’t repeat or double back. The tavern was crowded, but not as packed as the night when Eagles had occupied it. Ketrick was in the far corner to my left as I entered the room.

Most other tables were occupied that evening, but Ketrick sat alone, sipping a cup of siolat at a table for six, unsurprising, since he wore brooding menace like a cloak. When he saw me, he shifted subtly, and his demeanor turned to welcome as if the implied threat had never been, a good trick that I decided I would learn.

I sat against the wall so I could watch the door and waved to a slave, a blonde with a tray of cups and a pitcher. She failed the inevitable comparison with Angel, although I was biased. The girl was beautiful, as the vast majority of serum girls are, sharing DNA with the finest slaves Zhor had ever seen.

“Master,” the slave said as she poured my cup. She waited a second or two in case I should choose to use her, but I wasn’t in the mood. When she left, I turned my head toward my Weapons Master.

“Tyr t’Pol…” Ketrick began.

“Call me Tyr.”

He smiled. “Tyr, then, and you may call me Ketrick. I’m nearly positive that I could get into the valley because I’m known there, but for anyone else it would be too dangerous.”

“Damn.” I had hoped for better. “What about changing a man’s appearance?”

“It’s a common trick, and occasionally useful when one has the time, but not for Tulem. First, we would have to capture a man going to Tulem, then create a close match of his DNA, not an easy thing to do without extensive testing beforehand. Assuming this could be done without wasting too much time, it’s still a risk.

“If we duplicate a Tulem citizen, his family or friends would know him for a fraud. Duplicating a trader and his assistants would be better, but a trader normally enters, makes his trades, and leaves within a matter of a few days, probably not enough time to find out what we need. Staying too long would be suspicious. The rare visitor who wants to see the famous Tulem valley might not be admitted or, if he did gain entry, would certainly be closely watched -- especially now.”

“You said that you could get inside.”

Ketrick nodded. “It would be difficult, and harder the longer I’m gone, but I think I could talk my way in. The problem with me as a spy is the same one I have now: I wouldn’t be believed when I returned to Batuk.”

I leaned back and sighed. “All right. Then in several months, I’ll tell my father. Eagles will do its best to secure the well and food in the Fortress. We’ll warn the people and make them believe somehow.”

“It’s a start, and it might work.” He didn’t sound particularly encouraging.

I was suddenly weary of failure and pessimism. I glared at him. “Well, it’s all I can do, given what I know!”

He spoke slowly and evenly: “Tyr, there is nothing wrong with your plan; it may be the best that can done under the circumstances. I’m just being realistic. I haven’t stopped thinking, and neither should you. There’s nearly always a way; sometimes it isn’t easy to see.”

“Of course,” I replied, reddening a little at my outburst. “At least we have a chance -- if Tulem should ever invade.”

He pulled a corner of his mouth up into a half-smile and tipped his cup of siolat in my direction. “There’s always a chance, and a great deal can happen in a year. For the moment, be satisfied that you’ve done what you could. Have you noticed that The Silks serves fine siolat? Further, the women here are hot, should a man be interested in that sort of thing.”

He was right. Worrying too much can paralyze a man and steal everything that makes life worth living. I finished my siolat and called for another, pointing to a slim girl to serve me. I selected her because she was the opposite of my Angel in every way save beauty: shorter, black eyes, lustrous black curly hair that spilled over both front and back, and dusky skin.

I led her to an alcove, where I took her exactly the way a man should with a slave, allowing her nothing save what I wished. I forced her to acknowledge her true self in low, husky cries. As her natural slave nature was satisfied, she thrashed beneath me and wailed her joy. She emerged from the alcove smiling, and I returned to the table, where Ketrick had already ordered more siolat. We laughed and spoke of warrior affairs, compared the slaves we had used, and I tried another. When it was time to leave, hours later, both of us were drunk, me more so than Ketrick.

As we staggered out into the street, I thought I spotted Der’s reflection in the glass, but whoever it was, he was gone in an instant. I shook my head to clear it. I had known Der since we were boys. If it were he, then surely he would have joined us, or at least passed us a greeting.

I stumbled through my door late that night, grinning like an idiot. “Angel!” I shouted.

“Master!” her voice returned like sweet music.

I laughed. Seeing her was enough to bring a smile at any time. Angel yanked on my boots and tugged on my clothing, and before long there was nothing between us. When I stood beside her she sniffed the air. To her sharp nose, the smell of two women lay heavily on my body. She said nothing to me directly -- no master worth the name would have tolerated open disapproval from a slave, even Angel -- but, like most slaves, she was jealous, and her movements became brisk.

I shrugged. A little jealousy was good for her. A slave needed to be reminded from time to time who runs things. Angel and Wanda would have been disgusted if I were too weak to control or discipline them when necessary.

As I sank into the hot bath, Angel kept second girl away with a look and joined me, using the sponge and soap to sluice away the grime of the day and the aroma of siolat girls. I would have enjoyed more time in the water, but I had a long day ahead. Later, when I lay in the pelts watching the world revolve over my head, Angel slipped in beside me, and casually allowed her hand to drift. I smiled, knowing what she was doing, and let her, for if it worked or not, I would not be the loser. She was successful this time, and she squealed in delight as I forced her legs wide and took her. If I didn’t last as long as usual, it still satisfied her main objective: her scent would be on me in the morning, and she fell asleep with a smile.

Feeling expansive, I motioned for Wanda to join us. I fell asleep between two beautiful slaves: one blonde and one with hair like the night, thinking that life could not be better.

During the next week, I’d thought of a way to help determine if Tulem was really thinking of attacking us, and was in a good mood. Ketrick and I went wenching a few times. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Met and I were not the closest of brothers, but among men, until a matter is mentioned, it is private. When I noticed Ketrick guarding my back and glancing frequently towards the door, I told him my suspicions about my older brother.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’d already figured most of it out. “Be careful, Tyr,” he said, deadly serious. “You’re in a bad place; you have no room for error.”

I raised my cup and finished it in a single motion, then grinned at him. “I never visit the same tavern twice and I take pains to ensure that I’m not followed. I’m probably in less danger drinking and wenching than staying in my own rooms.”

He looked at me closely. “Not bad, as far as it goes, but the real key to staying alive…”

I cut him off with a gesture. “This sounds like the beginning of a lecture. Knowing some of your past, I’d say, ancient warrior, that the key to your survival has been unnatural luck.”

Ketrick grinned very slightly. “I’ve had more than my share. What I was about to say, infant, is while it is true that the aggressive way is often safer than living behind a wall, the key is not movement, it is unpredictability, or better yet, non-availability.”

I shrugged. “Then I’ll do my best to be with people I trust and remain unpredictable until my father makes up his mind about the succession.”

“Probably the only thing you can do short of leaving Batuk.”

The next morning, an hour after Hadrian’s Gong, Ron, Der, and I stood outside the slave quarters. The slave trainers were punctual; their wagon was rolling down the drive. Behind the bars, the new girls for Eagles stood around the center pole, chained to loops on their unadorned black collars. They wore generic black slave tunics, the color of the Guild.

I nudged my brother. “Which do you like?” He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head this way and that, so much the slave connoisseur at the tender age of twenty-two that I burst out laughing. He ignored me.

“I like the blonde, Flower,” he said.

I looked at him curiously.

“She has larger breasts than the others,” he explained. I shrugged. It wasn’t the most sophisticated method of choosing a girl, but what he said was true.

“I’ll take the brunette,” I said. “Der, unless you have an objection, take the redhead. Test them, but don’t expect trained pleasure girls.”

“Right, Tyr,” Der replied. Ron nodded.

I stepped forward when the wagon stopped. The slaver, a pretty brunette in shiny black leather, her hair pulled into a severe bun, stepped out and strode to the rear, casually pulling her slave whip from the leather harness on her hip. The three slaves shrank at the sight. Like all trained slaves, they had tasted the lash many times against their tender skins.

It isn’t true that slavers lack emotion. I’ve seen members of their guild, men and women, laugh, cry, fight and love. It’s characteristic of any trade to be immune to the toughest elements: the tanner ignores the smell of curing hides; the farmer, the hard work under the sun; the warrior, injuries and pain. Each takes pride in his work. So it is with the men and women of the Slavers Guild. Some men are not suited to train slaves. It is the nature of the natural slave to wail the hardest before she knows herself. To a man, the cry of a woman in pain is a terrible thing. A successful slaver overcomes that, understanding that misplaced kindness is detrimental to the girl’s happiness.

And yet, there may be some truth to the rumor that they feel less than most. Slaver men and women rarely marry outside their Guild, and love slave-love master relationships among them are rare.

The slaver hoisted herself into the back of the wagon with an athletic movement. Her black leather dress had long slits cut on the sides for ease of motion, and revealed shapely legs. She attached their chains to a long chain of her own, then unsnapped the girls from the center pole, never for a moment allowing a girl to remain unsecured.

“Out!” she ordered, pointing with the whip.

“Yes, Mistress!” they called back, a chorus of pleasing voices.

She led them around the wagon and lined them up before us. The Slave Mistress linked the end of the chain to a ring on the wagon and approached me with a writing-board.

“I'm Senior Slave Mistress Fleurie. All three slaves are present and trained. Will you take possession now?”

“I am Tyr t’Pol. I’ll take possession, but we’ll test them first.”

The slightest tightening in her jaw showed her annoyance. Slavers generally do not care to have their work questioned. “The test is your right. How long do you expect this will take?”

I glanced towards my brother, who already showed his anticipation, and towards Der, who was less obvious. “I’d say about an hour after the physical inspection. We'll order refreshments for you and your driver while you wait.”

She shrugged, having no choice in the matter. “Very well.”

The three slaves stood in line, looking nervously at us. Reder was more submissive than I’d remembered, but that was expected after two weeks with the slavers. Her pretty brown eyes lowered when she saw me, even blushing. I felt her interest, her reactions to my presence. When she had left, her urges had been dormant. They were no longer. I removed her garment to examine her, as only a fool examines a girl clothed. She didn’t wince or attempt to cover herself as many new serum girls often do, but stood there, head held high and chest out, proud of her body.

She had reason. I walked around her once, noting the exquisite shape of her breasts and thighs, and the flare of her hips. I saw no sign of abuse, not that I’d expected any. The slavers were professionals.

The Slave Mistress nodded towards her. “Unlike the blonde, who whined constantly, this slave required little discipline.”

“She has retained her spirit,” I observed. Looking straight into her brown eyes, she looked right back at me, smiling very slightly. Before I knew it, I was smiling back.

Slave Mistress Fleurie frowned, thinking the girl was being insolent, and un-strapped her whip. “Allow me to correct her!”

“No,” I said, holding up my hand. “Eagles has strong men; they require strong girls. I’m satisfied here. Now for the test.”

“As you wish.”

I led the slave who had once been the warrior, Reder, to a side room with a mattress and pelts. I placed my hands over her shoulders. They were no longer thick and corded from decades of hard training; they were the soft, slender shoulders of a woman.

“You’re a beautiful girl. What did the slavers call you?”

“Thank you, Master. They called me Peaches,” she said, blushing.

I laughed. It was a ridiculous name, even for a slave. “I’ll call you Rita.”

“Yes, Master. I am Rita.”

I pulled her to me and gave her a masters kiss. Instead of melting immediately into submission, as most slaves are eager to do, she fought me. I’d met a few that tried. Angel still did, Wanda sometimes, and, on rare occasions, a lively siolat girl. I welcomed the challenge, and imposed my will until her nature forced her to give up.

With a small cry, Rita submitted, her slim arms clinging to my back, and her body pressing against me. “Master,” she breathed.

I brought her along slowly until I had a good feel for her. While the slavers had done a good job freeing her from her former self, I was sure there was some of the old Reder in her, although I had not known him well. All traces of the male were gone and she moaned like any slave, yet she was recognizable.

I brought her to a string of powerful slave orgasms that squeezed me hard, making her scream and twist her head back and forth uncontrollably. After I pleased myself, I removed myself from her environs. She smiled, and rolled to my side.

“Speak freely, Rita. Are you happy?” I asked.

“Yes, Master. I may not be happy tomorrow, and have no illusions that life as pleasure girl to Eagles will be unremitting joy, but right now I'm happy.”

That was more than a siolat girl would say. Angel talked a lot, too, but wasn’t usually so cynical or incisive. I propped myself up on my elbow and considered her. “I don’t think your personality has changed very much. You have the same look as the girl I met the day before your transformation was complete, and I see something of the former warrior.”

She cried a few quiet tears. “I hoped that it would be that way for me, Master. I have changed -- deep inside. I love men. The slavers brought the urges fully to life, but somehow I still feel the same, if I may be allowed that contradiction. I’ve seen the others. The girl the slavers called Tulip, whom I knew well as Kedlos, is a rather silly girl now. Flower has changed, too, although I wonder how much that has to do with who she was and how much the slavers disciplined her. She cried, whimpered, and complained so much that even the other girls in the slave pens lost patience with her.”

“She won’t find life to her liking if she continues that at Eagles.”

“Yes, Master. The men of Eagles are strong. She will be forced to please them.”

“As will you, Rita.”

She smiled. “Master, I’m a slut. I enjoy pleasing men.”

“Then you’ll be ecstatic.”

She laughed, not the shy giggle that one would expect from a new slave, but the self-assured laugh of a girl pleased to be herself.

“How do you explain how the others were changed, yet you were not?”

“Master, I believe that it was because the other girls were frightened.”

I looked at her curiously. “You knew you would return a slave and a pleasure girl, but you weren’t terrified?”

“No, Master,” she said, shaking her thick, dark brown mane attractively. “I wasn’t terrified in the camp. I was scared when they whipped us before driving us into the slave wagon, but even then, I decided to accept who I must be.” Rita looked straight at me, her heart-shaped face overwhelmed with joy and pride. “Master, you had everything to do with it. You were kind to me as I changed in the infirmary, but it was what you did just before we passed through the gate that meant the most.

“You looked at me confidently and smiled; you expected me to be strong. I thought of you often in the camp, and learned my lessons well, without protest or fear. The branding was the worst of it, but when the hot iron seared the vaec into my thigh, I had prepared myself. The slavers feel that a girl is more pliable when she is afraid, and so they found excuses to beat us, but I knew what they were doing, and learned well enough so that I was rarely whipped or disciplined. I am overjoyed that it was you who took me first. While I was in your arms, I tried to show you that the girl you had gifted with a smile was strong; that the girl you had sent away was still there.”

“You did. It took some time to force your submission, and I’m pleased that you are much the same as you were.” I would have liked to continue the conversation, but there were other matters more pressing. I sat up cross legged and motioned her up. “Rita! Sit up.”

Her eyes grew large at my sharp command. “Yes, Master!” she said, scrambling to her knees.

“What do you know of Tulem invading Batuk?”

She stared at me, mouth wide open. “Invasion, Master? Tulem wants to invade Batuk?”

Her shock was too real to be faked. “When was the last time you were in Tulem?”

“A ... a month ago, Master!”

That was about a month or two after the preparations started, if Ketrick’s reports were to be believed, as I was nearly certain they could be, but the early signs had been subtle. Reder, an ordinary guard, would not be likely to know much, if anything. There were answers she was likely to have, but I didn’t know the right questions -- yet.

“Who is your Master?”

“You are, Master!”

“You are an intelligent girl. Follow me closely. You are no longer Reder, warrior of Tulem. You are a slave of Eagles and are expected to obey instantly and completely. I’ve heard credible reports of preparations in Tulem to invade Batuk. What can you tell me?”

She hands flew to cover the sides of her face and mouth. “M -- Master? I don’t know anything about that!” She cringed as if I were going to hit her, although I hadn’t moved.

“There’s nearly always something: a small detail, a snippet of conversation that only now, in context, fully makes sense. I’ll tell you some of what I have heard and you will confirm or deny.” I ran down the long list of items Ketrick had noticed. She shook her head helplessly on nearly everything, not too surprising, as most of what Ketrick had heard was specialized knowledge, such as contracts, work orders, and the like. Rita had lived in a village outside the city proper, and would have been unlikely to know any of that. She was able to corroborate only one piece of the puzzle: the new uniforms of the aristocracy, describing them accurately. But I needed more. One detail that might, by itself, be no more than a fashion trend wasn’t nearly enough.

“When I spoke to Heydar…” I began. When she flinched, I leaned forward to within a few inches of her face. “What do you know of Heydar?”

“Nothing much, Master! He is the King’s man, and Flower -- Halter -- was his friend.”

I stared at her. She blinked a couple of times and chewed fetchingly on her lip, but volunteered nothing further.

“Heydar made no effort to save Halter.”

“Heydar was a convenient friend, Master. Nonetheless, the two were close at one time.”

“Very well. Put on your tunic, Rita, and don’t say anything to Flower.”

She lowered her head. “Yes, Master,” she replied, subdued and saddened.

A master never apologizes to a slave. Rita knew my citizen’s obligation to protect Batuk, and would understand in time that I'd had no choice, and had, in fact, gone easy with her. A warrior would have understood that instinctively. But she wasn’t a warrior anymore, only a slave girl who had thought well of me. I left in a foul mood.

Slave Mistress Fleurie glared at me when I emerged into the sun, one hand perched on her hip while the other toyed with her whip. It was a reaction born of long experience with slaves, for surely exposing the slave whip, designed to lash soft female skin, could not have been meant to intimidate a warrior.

“I regret the delay, Slave Mistress. She was so good that I lost all track of time.”

Her mouth formed a thin line across her face, but said nothing. That was the weakness of women slavers: eternally denied the pleasure of joining with the slave girls they trained, they could never be quite sure when a man speaking of being with a woman was serious.

Der and Ron lounged by their slaves in the shade of a tree. They told me that their girls were adequate, so I signed the transfer, and the slavers departed.

I didn’t get back to the men until lunch. After interrogating Kedlos, whom Der had renamed Kitten, and Flower, I had much to think about. Kitten had known about as much as Rita. Flower, however, had opened like a blossom. The blubbering blonde recalled a night in a tavern in better days, and a cryptic comment from Heydar about extending Tulem’s border to the our Undine river -- all this occurring before the border dispute even started. Flower also recalled Heydar’s passing sneer that evening, that he wouldn’t be surprised if a king soon ruled in Batuk’s fortress -- and more: the best evidence of all, a previously unknown contract with Flower’s uncle for ten thousand spearheads, a staggering number for a valley of about one hundred thousand.

I told Ketrick about what I’d learned before lunch.

He gave me a good long look, sympathetic but also pleased that his word was vindicated. “So, now you believe,” he said.

“I do. Except for Tulem’s spies, there are now two people in Batuk who understand that war is coming. It still doesn’t change anything: the council wouldn’t accept hearsay from a slave.”

I was distracted that afternoon. I blocked a practice spear against my teeth, nothing serious, but enough to spit blood, and one of my men laid open my forearm with a wooden sword. Unwilling to abandon my men twice in one day, I bound it up tightly with a cloth to stop the bleeding, When Hadrian’s Gong ended the day, the arm was swollen and painful. The physician applied some ointment and a patch, and sent me off. I ate carefully around the injury in my mouth. Uneasy with the events of the day, even the food tasted different. A night out in a tavern didn't help either, and I left early. Back in my apartments, I realized that it was more than worry about Tulem: I had trouble concentrating on Angel. I tired quickly, and was slightly nauseous when I passed into dreamless slumber.
 
 

To Be Continued…

 



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