“MERKS! WHAT IN OBLIVION?!”
Aithne had heard the phrase ‘loud enough to wake the dead’ but this was the first time she had witnessed it. She blinked open her eye, then groaned as pain washed over her. Every bit of her body felt battered and bruised. Well, externally, anyway. As much as it hurt, it was still nothing compared to what Borkul’s clients had wrought. Not that that helped her headache. She tried to lift her hand, but the spike of pain that shot up her arm in protest forestalled the move.
Her master’s voice. She had not heard it raised before, but there was no mistaking an angry orc. She struggled to lift herself, but even without the pain, something heavy held her pinned to the floor.
“Just lay still. Damn it, Merks!” Then more words, spoken too quickly for her to grasp, though she thought she heard something similar to zir̀ yu, the words Merks had used to lift her, buried in the stream. She stilled and listened as the energy in the room began to swirl, coalesce, take invisible form. She heard scraping and the protest of wood. A massive weight lifted from her back and she found breathing to be easier, if not less painful.
“Divines, look at this place! What did you…DID YOU ATTACH CHAINS TO MY BOOKSHELVES?! I’M GOING TO KILL YOU, MERKS!”
“Goodness, what a mess.”
A new voice, though one Aithne recognized as well. She tried to turn her head to look, but a lance of pain signaled her body’s continued reluctance to move.
“Collette, thank the divines. They’re really hurt, could you…”
“Of course. What happened?”
“Merks, is what happened.”
“Her.” Though it was blurred, as if he was speaking with something in his mouth, there was no mistaking Merks’ voice.
“What’s that, Merks?” Collette’s voice sounded closer, but Aithne didn’t try to turn her head. She had a lovely view of a pile of books, and the pain wasn’t quite so bad when she didn’t move. One of the books was open, and she focused on it with the thought that maybe it could teach her something about…whatever had just happened. But the words, though written in a script she recognized, were gibberish to her. Pity.
“Herrrr.” Merks again. “She…she did this.”
Her master growled. It was the closest to Borkul that he had ever sounded, and Aithne felt the familiar twin trill of loathing and lust spark up her spine. “You chain her to my bookshelves then have the audacity to blame her for the bookshelves’ collapse?”
“Hush, now.” Collette’s soothing voice overrode Merks’ protests. “Let’s get you fixed up.”
“Don’t heal him all the way. Just enough so he will stop bleeding on my floor. I want him to suffer. Maybe he will learn something.”
Collette laughed. “Well, natural healing is best, it is true. But we can go a little further than just stopping the bleeding. He has a lot of internal injuries that would kill him if…”
“Good.” Her master said the word out loud at the same time Aithne thought it. She would have laughed, had her body not forbade it.
Collette laughed for both of them. “Ah, Urag. You can take the orc out of Orsimer, but you can’t take the Orsimer out of the orc.”
Then she spoke other words. Words that made the energy in the room flow again, only…differently than before. It felt warmer, less chaotic, somehow. It flowed in a different pattern, one Aithne could not quite grasp. The words themselves were too quiet to understand, spoken in a whisper. Less than a whisper, a pianissimo so soft, she wondered if she imagined them. Merks’ pained breathing eased into something more normal. He tried again.
“You don’t understand. She…”
“Enough. Get out of my library. You’re banned for the next three months.”
“Three months?! But I need to…”
“I don’t care. You’re lucky I don’t have you expelled.”
“If I can’t study, I’ll be expelled anyway.”
“I weep for you. See my bitter tears? Now get out.”
A sigh and the sounds of movement as Merks presumably got up and left.
“You should have got the key from him first.” The sibilant whisper began again, and Aithne felt the warmth of the flowing energy enter her body. The relief was immediate and she savored her first long pain-free inhale.
“Bah. Who needs keys? Yiindel pluuk, piip, tìk.”
It was a curious feeling – her Master’s words caused the energy around him to sharpen even as Collette’s continued ministerings held that same soft tone. Somehow the two disparate forces did not interact, though they drew from the same source. What if…
Her train of thought was broken when the metal shackles around her wrists and ankles shattered and broke away, along with the first few lengths of the chain. Aithne lifted her head as Collette finished and, with a clink, the broken pieces of Aithne’s collar slid off her neck and onto the floor. Aithne froze in place, staring at them. It had not been a thick collar, but somehow its removal felt as if she had shed a hundred pounds.
“Are you all right? I thought I got the major damage. Did I miss something?”
Aithne looked up at Collette’s concerned face and shook her head, then pushed herself to her knees and, after a moment’s hesitation, lifted her head. Her bare neck felt exposed – she was certain her master would notice and, though he was the one who had inadvertently removed it, punish her for its absence. He did react but, though the collar’s absence could not have been missed, his concern went in a different direction.
“Why don’t you ever talk?”
Aithne could not suppress a shudder as flashbacks of Borkul’s training sessions slammed though her. Over and over, the point had been hammered in – she was never to speak without very explicit permission. Even a direct question did not warrant a response if it was not coupled with a command for one. Of course, he had not told her so in as many words – he had taken the long route, inflicting pain whenever she failed to follow his rules, until she had learned those rules through tortuous trial and error. Panic flowed through her as she opened her mouth to respond; even as her mind reminded her that things were different with this master, that he had shown no penchant for the same violence, that his rules were very different, her instincts fought back with blind unreasoning terror. It took everything in her to force the words from her mouth.
“I…was told not to.”
“What? By who?”
“Well, he’s not around anymore. So I expect you to answer when I ask you a question. Understand?”
She nodded, then shrank back at his responding glower. “Um. I understand. Master.”
That final word seemed to spark something in him – she saw him flinch and his scowl twisted into a grimace. “Don’t…don’t call me that. ‘Sir’ is fine. And we need to get you clothes – clearly you are too much of a distraction. Collette, do you have any? I don’t think my clothes would do.”
“I’m sure we can find something suitable. Stand up please, dear. Let’s make sure you’re all right.”
Collette reached out warm hands and helped Aithne to her feet. At this close of proximity, Aithne’s naked neck screamed to be noticed, at least in her imagination, but the other two inhabitants of the room continued in their indifference. Her master began picking up books while Collette guided Aithne out of the room and up to the hall to her master’s suites.
“There. You’ve had a rough day, haven’t you? Rest up. I’ll be back with some clothes for you.”
Collette didn’t wait for a response, just turned and left. Aithne stood in place for a long moment trying to wrap her mind around everything that had happened, but it was all just...too much. Nothing could have prepared her for what the day had wrought.
At last, she gave up trying to make sense of it and moved to the bath, where the hot water eased her tension and helped clear her mind of everything except one essential truth: though she no longer wore a collar, and though her master did not act as she had come to expect, her status had not changed. She was still a slave – his slave – and, just as with Borkul, she still needed to learn his rules. Though she was beginning to allow herself to accept that failure to immediately grasp the rules would not lead to pain this time, she was sure there was still a price to pay for failure.
In a way, this was worse – at least she had understood the cost of failure before. Her greatest fear was that she would learn the new price too late, and it would end up costing more than she had to give.
Edited by jfraser