Chalice of Shadows
Flames hissed through dry wood to lick the slave chained to a stake. Muscles bulging, howling, he strained against his bindings and then his flesh began to melt.
Shackled in a line with other slaves, Morgan tried not to hear his screams, tried not to imagine his agony. The screams turned to shrieks until the fire hid his head and his flame-whitened eyes. The sickly smell of burning flesh stuck in her throat, and she held her breath to stop her stomach heaving. Greasy smoke spiraled, violating a clear blue summer sky with a message of death.
He had earned death, but not in that form, tossed on a fire like kitchen waste. When he had strangled a guard with his chains, he’d challenged the rest of the warriors to cut him down with their blades and let him die as a soldier. They had refused to stain their blades with the blood of a slave and netted him with a stout rope trap like an animal.
The fire popped with explosions of fat globules, and a shudder began within Morgan, one that rattled her chains. She tried to stop, afraid to earn any attention when the free people had a killing frenzy in full flow. There they stood, the privileged of High fort, gathered in a semi-circle around the crisping remains, chattering and laughing as if a life lost was entertainment. Those folk disgusted her so much that she didn’t now mind being sold away from her home. Any place must be better than this.
She didn’t remember offending someone, having been a slave from early childhood, and didn’t care as long as she could get far away from these cruel people. If having a soul like the free folk meant liking the pain of others, then she didn’t want one or the Harvesters Golden Afterlife. Morgan preferred to think of death as a ceasing to exist, although maybe slaves went to the Wild Hunt, the same as Outcasts.
The crowds began to mill around the avenues of trading booths on the outskirts of the fort, eager for more to fill their empty lives. Silver Band individuals paused to watch a juggler while those wearing the bronze wristlets went on to slake their greed on exotic dishes from other forts. No individual from the Gold Band ruler class had bothered to watch the execution of an animal, apparently considering sideshows mere fodder for the lesser castes.
A Black Band Outcast stepped out of a tent to look around as if he owned the sky. Dressed in dark leather as a protection against the elements, he stood out from the fort folk in their wool and linen clothing. His lack of expression and penetrating stare marked him as a death monger for hire.
Near the stand of a fire-eater performing his act, sensing the approach of a predator, people stepped aside to let the Outcast pass through their ranks. Morgan stood on tiptoe to see this unusual sight, accidentally pulling on the chains linking her to other unfortunates.
“Be still, girl.” A ragged man with one ear missing yanked her into line next to him. “Do you want to give these fort people more sport?”
“There’s an Outcast…”
Another hard yank on her chain stopped her words. The swirl of people parted again for a Harvester’s priest clad in traditional saffron yellow. The dignitary glided forward, looking more like he had wheels instead of legs under his wide skirts. At least the big hairy creature wasn’t near this one like it usually was. Her heart sank at the sight of the uncaring religious zealot who would decide her fate. Slaves don’t have souls.
The mutilated man hawked and spat in the direction of the Outcast now standing in shadows “Those madmen protect their own. They don’t champion slaves.”
Quiet sobbing started on her other side as a pretty woman in scanty clothing began another bout of despair.
“Hush up, Lanara.” The one-eared man leaned around Morgan to glare. “You’ll have an easy life if you please your new master. We’ll be beasts of burden.”
The sobbing turned into a shuddering tremble, felt through the shackles. With the wisdom of sixteen summers behind her, Morgan knew he meant Lanara would be a pleasure slave.
Stick thin with tangled hair that she rinsed with the juice of a root to give it a dull brown color, Morgan wasn’t at risk from the desires of men. Sometimes, one would raise her head, and then he would see the angry disfigurement of either side of her neck. Men preferred their lust-meat untainted.
“Time was,” a quavering voice came from behind, “when we’d have been made Outcasts, too. A man could die a clean death, or win the chance of coming under the Outcast mantle of inclusion.”
An image of a group of Outcasts marching flooded into Morgan’s mind. Under a sky of green, they strode in fighting triads between huge rectangular blocks of stone with windows. Why had someone carved a mountain away from a cave complex, squared off the sides and put holes in the walls? Why lose the safety of living within the ground? Why so many Outcasts in one place when they never traveled together? She got a sense of safety from them, despite the gray mists that curled in her memory.
A guard tethered a leash around Lanara’s neck to lead their chain from a holding pen to a sales pen near a raised platform the priest had just mounted. This gave the crowd of buyers a better chance to appraise stock before the sale of individual slaves. The first in another line was unshackled, prodded into an area in front of the Harvesters henchman and seated buyers.