After three and a half days of travel with Sutfu and the other pilgrims – for pilgrims was what they purported to be – Aithne was on her last gasp of stamina. Every step on the steep mountain paths was torture in the spiked shoes and she was lagging behind the group when they made their fourth camp.
She slumped to the ground next to where Sutfu placed his bedroll and tried to enjoy the respite from movement, but her body was wracked with eponymous pain and she could not tell the difference between standing and sitting. Not that it mattered. She knew any relief she might feel was only an illusion – her master seemed to have a sixth sense about when she started to feel even the tiniest bit better and made sure it didn’t last.
Such as now.
“What should we start with tonight?” Sutfu's soft voice grated over her nerves, causing almost as much pain as his knife’s cuts. “The stick last night was interesting but not as fun as I thought. But it gave me an idea for the future! Instead of just poking you with it while it’s on fire, next time I’ll use it as a whip! A fire whip! That would be exciting, don’t you think?” Fortunately, he never seemed to expect an answer to his questions – he likely would not have approved of her honest assessment. “We seem to be camping in a treeless area tonight. That’s okay, though! Anticipation always makes things more exciting. We’ll look forward to the fire whip. I wonder that I never thought of that before.”
His finger grazed over her bare skin as he talked, then he leaned over and bit her shoulder hard enough to draw blood. She was prepared – she kept her tongue between her teeth and made not a sound. Her tongue had become as raw as the rest of her body, but at least it was pain she had inflicted herself. The one thing left that she could control.
“Still nothing, eh?" He wiped blood from lips as he sat back. "This is all too easy for you? I wish I could meet the man who trained you – he was truly a master, for you to have such discipline yet, at the same time, be so submissive. The two traits don’t usually go together! Especially in women. I have found them to be either stubborn to a fault or so quick to surrender that you would think they wanted to be slaves. In fact, that has become my working theory.”
He picked up a palm sized stone and slammed it into her jaw. Pain shot through her head and she bit down hard enough on her tongue to draw blood. He just shook his head with a wry smile and tossed the stone away.
“I believe all women, deep down, long to be controlled. You want to be told what to do by a man. You secretly want to be slaves, every last one of you.”
He drew his knife and tapped his finger with the blade for a moment while Aithne watched. That was the key, she had discovered – don’t look away, no matter what he was doing. Seeing it meant being able to prepare for it. It was the surprises that carried the most danger. But he looked at her, then at the knife, and sighed.
“But most women don’t have the strength to be good slaves. The soft ones, the ones that give up immediately, don’t last. They are cowards whose only goal is to avoid as much pain as possible. They learn too late that pain is inevitable – it is not something you can avoid. But they will do anything – literally anything to avoid it. Most of them end up killing themselves.”
He reached out with a hand and, in one smooth motion, grabbed a burning log from the fire, turned, and pressed the still-flaming end into Aithne’s stomach. Her eyes bulged and her eyes watered and she bent over as her body convulsed. Her mouth was filled with her own blood, but she swallowed it along with the scream that tried to tear its way out.
“The stubborn ones are different,” Sutfu continued in a conversational tone as he tossed the log back on the fire and leaned back, resting his weight on his hands. “You might think that they don’t want to be slaves, but the truth is that they just don’t want to admit it to themselves. So they fight, both themselves and their masters. The make much better slaves in the end because they last long enough to break through all that recalcitrance. Once they finally accept what they are, they also realize it was what they wanted all along. It is a relief to them to finally understand themselves, and they go on to serve their masters willingly, knowing it’s the best thing for them.”
He picked up the dagger again and studied the reflection of the fire as it danced along the blade.
“You were one of the stubborn ones, of course. I bet it took your trainer weeks to break you. But even then, you have taken a step beyond the norm. See, the stubborn ones are like metal, and the training process is like tempering. Hammer it too long or incorrectly and it becomes too thin or too brittle, and something that looks like a fine weapon or piece of armor simply collapses upon use.”
He leaned back and set the dagger’s blade into the fire, resting the hilt upon a not-yet-burning log, and then turned back and cupped his hands under his chin, studying her for several long, silent minutes. She felt a chill go through her, only in part from the breeze that passed over her naked skin, raising goosebumps and peaking her nipples.
“But every now and then the smith does everything just right. He finds the perfect piece of pure ore, he makes every move, every stroke just so. The weather is just the right balance of humidity and temperance. When he is finished…”
He reached back and pulled out the glowing blade.
“…he has a masterpiece.”
The blade blurred red through the air and, though she saw it coming, she was not - could not have been – prepared for it to cleave her right nipple in two. A wide smile cracked his face when her scream rent the night air, sending the blood in her mouth flying as every head in the company snapped in her direction with expressions ranging from anticipation to sick loathing.
“Sutfu…” the armored woman, Yuf, began, but it was already too late. That crazed gleam was back in his eyes as he leaned toward Aithne.
“Finally! I am so impressed! No one has ever lasted for more than a day before! Because of that, I’m going to reward you – you are allowed to make as much noise as you want for the rest of the night. Make good use of it! The game begins again tomorrow!”
Then he grabbed her head, pushed her flat on the ground, held her left eyelid open with a finger and a thumb and, with a practiced flick of his dagger, neatly plucked out her eye.
She made full use of her vocal permission that night.