The room around them was giant and magnificent, filled to the brim with bizarre apparatuses. The very air buzzed with energy. Bright light shone from fire-less sconces along the wall and glowing runes covered the floor. High above Aithne’s head, large spheres rotated and spun, each at different speeds, in some strange pattern she could not grasp. She gaped at her surroundings, trying to take in the entirety of the giant room, but everywhere she looked, she saw something new, and each new thing seemed more incomprehensible than the last.
Her Mistress laughed. “It’s quite something, isn’t it? I’ve lived here for decades and it still takes me a little aback a little whenever I return.” She waved her arms in a grand gesture. “Welcome to the College of Winterhold! Come on.” Her Mistress moved forward with a sense of purpose. “This is going to be hilarious. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.”
They wound their way through hallways and chambers and the further they went, the more unease Aithne felt – every eye turned, every voice stopped, when she entered a room. She had become used to being without clothes in public but the public had likewise become used to clothes-less slaves. The net effect was a zero-sum – neither the slaves nor the public thought it an unusual sight. Aithne had been unclothed but she not felt naked, a heretofore unrecognized and altogether unwelcome distinction that bore down on her like a fresh wound. She felt an unlikely blush blossom and cover her body and had to force herself not to cover herself as she walked.
Their path led to tower steps and then into a giant room filled floor to ceiling with books. Of all the wonders of this college, this one most took her breath away. Books were a rarity – Aithne had seen three in her entire lifetime. She had not known so many books existed in the world, let alone in one single (albeit very large) room. She had not realized she had stopped walking until her Mistress prodded her.
“Come on. He’s right over there.”
Aithne complied with a start, silently berating herself for her lapse while simultaneously preparing herself for her well-deserved punishment -- though her Mistress showed no signs of meting out judgement, it was hard to believe it was not forthcoming. But her Mistress strode across the stone-tiled floors to a large desk on the opposite wall as if she hadn’t even noticed her slave’s momentary lapse.
Her Mistress circumvented a large floating circular staircase placed in the dead center of the room and called out, “Ury!” I have a surprise for you!”
“I told you not to call me that.” A deep and gravelly voice, but the staircase blocked Aithne’s view of the speaker. She followed her Mistress around it and…
“Yes, yes. Are you ready for your surprise?”
The question was not directed at Aithne, but it may as well have been. For the second time, her legs forgot to move and she stood rooted as she saw…Him. Here. How could…
The orc tossed a dismissive glance at Aithne then turned back to her Mistress. “Does it have anything to do with the naked girl behind you?”
His lack of recognition snapped through Aithne’s haze. Of course, this was not Borkul. It was a different orc. Smaller, older, with paler green skin and a bushy white beard. He didn’t look remotely like her former Master. And yet she felt…
“Yes! Surprise! I brought you a slave!”
It had been weeks since she had last seen Him but all her conflicting emotions came crashing back as her brain grasped that she was being handed over to another orc. She was unable to bite back a short “yip” as fear and hatred and lust and some twisted form of hope deluged her.
Her new Master seemed less thrilled. “Why?”
“Why? What do you mean, why? You’ve been bitching and whining about needing more help for years!”
“I’ve been asking for real help. Someone who actually knows what they’re doing and treats my books with the respect they deserve.” The orc snorted and waved a hand at the room. “If just anyone would do, I would have been using these useless students all this time.”
“Well, I’m sure you can find some use for her. At the very least, maybe getting laid will take that stick out of your ass.”
Aithne flushed again as another spike of lust and loathing twisted a twin path up her spine.
The woman’s hands began to move and her new Master’s eyes widened. He held up a forestalling hand and said, “Wait!” but too late, apparently – the woman disappeared in an instant, leaving Aithne standing face to face with the orc as tendrils of rapidly dissipating energy emanating from where the woman had just been standing stroked her skin. The sensation was gone before Aithne could focus on it, brief enough that she felt she might have imagined it, except her could still feel the warm glow from where the tendrils had…
“What am I supposed to do with you?” The orc’s voice broke through her reverie, but she felt she already knew the answer – if there was one thing she knew, it was how to serve an orc Master. She bowed her head and clasped her hands in front of her, taking the waiting position that had been ingrained over those long weeks or months. Her Master studied her for a moment, then let out a harried grunt and motioned toward the wall behind his desk. “I don’t have time for this right now. Just…stand over there and stay out of the way.”
Aithne moved with alacrity to the place he had indicated, settling herself between two bookcases that towered over her head before resuming her pose. The orc grunted again and sat down at his desk and began flipping through papers.
Aithne was well practiced at waiting and, as a bonus, she was being allowed to remain standing, for which her knees cried silent praise. The constant pain they had carried for so long had disappeared along with her other aches (and she took another moment to revel in the feeling of wholeness) and she was not looking forward to the inevitable resumption of their most requested use. She kept her head down, though she cast a furtive eye at all within sight.
This amounted to her Master at his desk, the open spiral staircase that…well, floated, or seemed to - there were no handrails or supporting structure that she could see, just elegantly carved wooden steps floating in air, arranged in a large spiral twisting upward – in the center of a perfect circle of stone tile lined with bookshelves, with more bookshelves extending beyond. People as well, mostly humans, though she thought she saw a khajiit, all dressed in similar robes of muted greys, greens, and blues.
But nothing she saw dominated the room as much as what she could hear. Or, rather, what she couldn’t hear – other than the faintest hum, so quiet it hovered at the back of her head, an occasional whisper, or the sound of paper crinkling and pages turning, the room was a vast well of silence. It was a little unnerving, at first. Aithne had thought she knew how silence sounded – all those days walking behind Borkul had been mostly empty of conversation, of anything but the sounds of their feet, the wind, and the wildlife. An unfettered cacophony compared to the omnipresent stillness of this library.
It was…nice. The longer she stood in the silence, the more it eased her. It felt almost physical, like a warm shroud. She let her eye drop, removing the incomprehensible room of books from vision, replaced by a small section of stone tiles, each with a light pattern of gracefully twisting carved lines. No two of the tiles in her view had the same pattern, yet they somehow interlocked, so where a line reached the edge of one tile, it was received by the next. She traced the lines with her eye, freeing her mind of all other thoughts, letting all her worries fade to the background. One by one, with each breath, she let them go, released them from her conscious mind.
Slavery. Pain. Humiliation and torture. Loss and sorrow. The news that she was pregnant was not hard to release – it didn’t feel real, or even possible. Surely she would have known, been able to tell. She brushed it aside and stepped past.
HE and, for that matter, the new orc, however, took several deep breaths and nearly broke her reverie, mostly because of the way her body began to heat up, but she managed, at last, to let them go, at least for this moment, for this breath and then the next and on to the next.
Her world was reduced to a half-dozen intricately carved tiles and a deep stillness that felt like a balm on her soul. It was a rare fraction of time when she felt completely at peace, and she drank from its waters as deeply as she could while it lasted.
Edited by jfraser