Born in the Barrens
by Eildon Rhymer
Rating: T for occasional swearing and references to torture
Genre: AU, adventure, angst, h/c, gen
Characters: Initially only McKay and Sheppard (although he isn't named), plus assorted Genii. Others appear later
Warnings: There are mentions of torture. It's not immensely graphic, and most of it's seen in brief flashbacks, but it's still there. Also, AU alert!
Summary: While on a mission to the city of the Genii, Rodney McKay, master alchemist, is given a gift of a slave.
Note: In the wish fulfilment challenge on sgaflashfic over on LJ, Stealth Dragon wished for a story in which Sheppard was an abused slave. I took elements from the two different scenarios she suggested, merged them and mixed them up in a pot, and this emerged. At 58,000 words, it clearly doesn't really merit the term "flashfic." Oops.
Thanks to ValleyA for reading it through in advance. However, since I'm being impatient and am posting part one before I've even sent her the second half of the story, all errors are my own.
This is finished, but still needs quite a bit of tweaking. I'll probably start by posting a part every other day but speed up to every day later on.
"I will miss you," Kolya said, as he etched his mark with the tip of his knife. "You suffer so beautifully."
The slave stared rigidly straight ahead. The pain was hot and sharp, digging into him like barbed claws, but it was nothing, really. He had suffered far worse.
"There." Kolya took a step back, raising his knife to the light. Blood stained it half way to the hilt. "You never scream." Something sparked in his eyes that could have been interest.
The slave stared straight ahead.
Kolya walked around him in a slow semi-circle, tweaking the chains of quickened iron that bound him. "You never scream," he said, just a breath and a presence at the slave's back. "Why not?"
The slave did not know, but he would never say that; words did not come easily to him. He felt Kolya grab his hair; felt Kolya's finger ping against the thick metal collar around his neck.
"It is beautiful," he heard, "to watch you struggle so hard to keep it in. Your eyes say more than ever a scream could do." Then Kolya's voice changed. He slapped the slave on the shoulder, between healing scars and healed ones. "It's time to go. You have a new master now. Will you scream for him, I wonder?"
It was never truly dark in the city of the Genii. They were addicted to alchemy – not good at it, mind, but fascinated by it, gleefully producing simple, glittering toys. Discs of incandescent metal topped the towers and engine-houses, making it a sky of a hundred false moons. Their nights were silver and black, and their days were cold and gleaming.
Silver flowed in through the quickened glass of the windows. Rodney rolled over, pressing his forearm against his eyes. His fingertips smarted with the aftermath of late-night working, and his dreams were heavy with memories of places he would rather be. Home, he was home - or perhaps by the ocean, beneath pinnacles of crystal and carved stone. He was in a place with colour and with no--
"Adept McKay." The voice penetrated his dreaming.
"What…?" Rodney threw off his blanket, his heart already beating faster. "How… how did you…?" He scraped his hand through his hair; reminded himself of the role he was supposed to be playing. "What part of 'working' don't you people understand?"
The soldier's eyes flickered with something he was too well trained to show completely.
"I was thinking," Rodney said. "I was working until well after the chimes of three. I was resting my eyes and thinking…", in a high-backed chair, covered with a blanket woven in other, distant places; neck stiff and sore, eyes itching with fumes and memories; thinking...
"Of course, my lord Adept," the soldier said. "The High Lord Cowen has sent you a gift, as a gesture of thanks for all the work you have done for him." A muscle at the side of his mouth twitched. "The throne room has never been more bright or the war machines more gleaming."
"A gift?" Rodney's stomach rumbled despite himself. "Those fondant fancies he--"
"A slave, my lord Adept. One of General Kolya's own."
"A slave?" Rodney frowned. "Why ever would I want a slave? Does a slave know how to prepare an elementary fixing? Does a slave know the secret name of lead? Apprentices I can use, even if they do keep on opening the door and letting people in when I expressly asked not to be disturbed. A slave – and I've seen your slaves… No." He flapped his hand. "I don't want it. Take it away."
"And refuse the High Lord Cowen's gift?"
Rodney stopped; pressed his hands to his face. When he lowered them, the windows were still gleaming. "Stop it!" he shouted, striking the metal frame with his fist, then smoothing it out, jaggedly tracing the correct symbols, muttering the necessary words. The air was cold outside, and the street was grey in the early light of morning. "Of course I won't refuse the gift," he said stiffly, still not turning round. "Send the slave in – him, her, it. Tell the High Lord Cowen that I received it gratefully."
"Him, my lord Adept." When Rodney shifted position slightly, the glass beneath his fingers showed him the sight of the soldier smirking openly, thinking himself unobserved.
"I don't know why he thinks I need a slave," Rodney grumbled, reaching for his furred robe, grimacing at the latest burn marks from spilled alchemicals.
With a quick nod, and a crisp but almost insolent salute, the soldier departed. Rodney sank down on the chair, pressing his face into his stinging hands. What ever am I going to do? he thought. The slave was a complication. But it was only to be expected, of course. His work was dazzling, far more accomplished than anything Cowen's blundering neophytes could produce. It was inevitable that Cowen would one day feel the urge to thank him personally, and since they were Genii, who traded people the way more enlightened people traded cloth-of-gold and machine parts, this was the only way Cowen knew how to do it.
"After all," he said, looking up at his own unadorned, ungilded ceiling, "I do deserve it." He'd pat the slave on the head a few times, send him on a few menial errands, then sell him on when Cowen had lost interest, just as he did with the ridiculous capes and lap dogs that rich nobles tried to bribe him with.
The iron called to him from his work bench. With a sigh, he walked over to it, running his finger along its cold surface, feeling the potential of so many other things waiting to be set free. Food called louder, though. To get food he would have to leave his workroom, and where had they put the slave? Outside, perhaps, in the courtyard? He glanced at the window, where the lead lights whispered to him of ice crystals outside.
"Stupid," he berated himself. "Let's get it over with."
He hurled the door open. The slave was in the hallway, standing very still on the grey slate tiles. His wrists and his ankles were shackled with chains of… By the flame, Rodney thought, it's quickened iron! Not his own work, though, for its language was strange to him. But why bind a slave with quickened iron unless…?
"You." It came out as little more than a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Slave. What's your name?"
The slave looked at him. No, Rodney thought, the slave had been looking at him all the time, even though his head had been bowed. His long dark hair was loose around his neck, and his feet were bare. As Rodney watched, the slave opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.
Rodney frowned with irritation. "You're supposed to obey me, aren't you?" This was an inconvenience. This was something unplanned. He didn't like inconveniences, not when he was so close to…
"I don't…" The slave seemed to be struggling to produce the words. "I…" He swallowed, and Rodney could see his left fist clenching, tendons pressing against the quickened iron band. "…don't have a name," the slave said. "Each… master--" He said the word with a desperate emphasis. "--has c-called me… something different."
"Like what?" Rodney edged forward, drawn by the alien signature of the chains. Then his fingers brushed the metal, and he caught a sudden glimpse of this man dangling by his wrists from a hook on the ceiling, a lash falling on his back again and again and again. He recoiled, his mouth suddenly dry and foul-tasting.
"'You'," the slave said. "A number. A hound's name. One of my masters..." The other hand clenched, metals chains rippling, whispering more clearly with every moment that passed; Rodney saw cold – excruciating, biting cold – and blood gleaming on the tip of a knife. "He called me… Eagle because…" The slave frowned, his brow wrinkling into deeply-etched accustomed lines. "…I liked to look at… at the… birds flying across the… the sky, before he b-blinded me for a whole lunar cycle with… drugs."
"Oh." Rodney really had no idea what to say. Perhaps it was just that glimpse of metal-borne memory, but the slave looked cold, he thought. On the upper part of his body, he wore only a thin white shirt, open at the neck, showing eyelets where laces once had been.
The chains shifted again. Their voice was almost clear now, and Rodney saw a knife cutting into flesh, and saw a face, a face he knew. "He cut you," Rodney found himself saying. "General Kolya. Last night."
"Marked me." The slave was looking straight ahead. A small drop of blood had soaked through the shirt at his shoulder. "His… initial. They all did – all my… masters."
Rodney wanted to retreat back to his room, to bar the door, to lose himself in phials and quickenings, to hide in his work, to forget, to forget what had brought him here, to this cold cruel city on the far side of the north. "Have you had many?" He swallowed. "Many masters?" What carved letters would he find beneath that shirt? But the chains knew. The chains could show him every drop of blood, every carved inch of flesh, every scream, every scrap of suffering. They had been quickened for this purpose, by somebody who liked to relish pain.
The slave said nothing for a long time. "One there," he said at last, hand moving minutely towards his right shoulder, the chains whispering of things Rodney didn't want to know about. "One there." His other hand shivered upwards, scarred fingers indicating his left shoulder. "Two on the back. One… there," he said, and Rodney saw a silver scar on his breastbone – just the point of a jagged letter emerging from the low neck of his shirt.
Rodney felt sick. He had to keep on talking, he had to, because the chains… "Why--" He scraped his stinging hands across his eyes. "Why do they keep passing you on?"
"Because…" The line between the slave's brows grew deeper, and was that sweat beading on his brow? "Because I didn't submit at first. Because I don't scream."
The chains showed more, though. The chains showed this man held down by four others, and kicking, fighting, surging up and silently smashing the jaw of one of his attackers. He heard a bellow of fury. He saw a club falling again and again, and blood pooling outwards, feeding the hungry chains.
"No!" Rodney moaned. He retreated across the slate; found his door; backed through it; closed it. It wasn't meant to be like this! Had Cowen known? But of course he'd known, he thought, as he tottered to his work bench and clutched its edge with both hands. Stupid to think that this had been a reward. He deserved a reward, of course, because, well, he was the finest alchemist alive, but a man like Cowen would never give him his just reward. Cowen had given him a slave who had tried to kill a previous master. Cowen had given him somebody who would be no use to him at all. How they must have laughed!
Still, he thought, he couldn't hide here. He couldn't let this derail things, not so near the end. Grabbing the phial he needed, taking a deep breath, he headed back to the hall. The slave had moved, he noticed, just a few inches, although his posture and expression were unchanged.
"Stand still," Rodney commanded.
He saw the slave's muscles go rigid, his breathing fast and shallow at his throat. "Yes," the slave said, paused just for a moment, then said, "master." His eyes said something else, though.
Rodney ignored it. The chains had tales to tell of torment and suffering, and by the flame, they had to have been used to shackle more than one person, because there was no way one person could withstand that amount of abuse and still be able to stand there, still be able to look straight ahead, not a sound escaping their lips as they… "By the flame!" he swore, but he had to forget that, he had to, as he dropped the contents of the phial on the chains, as he closed his eyes, sought the names he needed, and traced them, patterns with his fingers, low syllables with his lips.
"What did you do," the slave asked quietly, "master?"
The light had changed, Rodney realised, the sun reaching the crystal skylight, falling in shards of colour on the cold slate floor. He heard the chimes strike, and counted ten.
"I unquickened them," he said. "I'm an alchemist – an Adept, highest rank there is. And, yes, I know they say that only the alchemist who performed the quickening can undo it, but normal rules don't apply to me, because, hello? Genius?" He let out a breath, suddenly deeply weary. "You won't be able to feel much difference – well, a little, perhaps, because they were cruel, those chains – but I…" He scraped his hand over his eyes, flashing on images of blood and torment. They were talking to me, he thought, but did not say it.
The slave looked at him, and there was something in those eyes that Rodney found unsettling. When he spoke, though, his voice was quiet, almost broken. "I thank you, master."
"Don't say that!" Rodney burst out. "By the flame, I…" The black metal of the collar caught his eyes suddenly, drawing his attention now that the chains were silent. "That isn't alchemist's work," he said, fascinated despite himself, "but it isn't base metal, either." He touched it, and recoiled, his skin burning. It was… Cold, grasping, parasitic… He brought his hand up, almost touching the collar, then curled it into an almost-fist, pulling it back. "How long have you…?"
"Always." As the slave spoke, it almost seemed to Rodney as if the collar was moving, darkness rippling through it, black on black.
"It isn't…" Rodney's mouth was dry. "It isn't Genii work."
"They found me in the barrens." Again there was that strange dark rippling. "I was… hurt. I don't remember… anything… before that."
It wasn't physical movement, Rodney realised, but power rippling beneath the surface – something that only someone with an alchemist's gift could see. "I think…" He dared to touch it again, but his hand trembled, his thumb accidentally brushing against the slave's skin. "Sorry," he murmured, "sorry. It's… Oh, Shadow, I think it's Wraith-wrought. I can't… I mean, not even I can… I know more about it than anybody else, of course, but it doesn't work the same as our alchemy. It should be comprehensible, but it somehow… isn't. Which is ridiculous, because this is me we're talking about, and…" He brought both hands to his mouth. "Does it hurt?" he asked, lowering them only slightly.
Blood had seeped through the fabric at the slave's shoulder, in a blurry, crimson K. "Everything hurts," the slave said simply, and there were things in his eyes that Rodney never wanted to understand – things he had silenced the chains so he wouldn't have to hear.
Focus, he thought. This was the language of metals. This was what he did. This was rare Wraith metal-magic landing almost literally in his lap. The acclaim they would give him if he mastered it! Bracing himself, he reached for the collar again. Touching it hurt, as alien magics stood obdurate in the face of his own. It was solid, and colder than it should have been for something in contact with living flesh. There was enough space between the collar and the slave's throat for him to slip a finger in.
At the back, though, there was no space at all. Rodney frowned. "It's…" He pushed the slave's head forward, allowing himself space to study it. "Get down," he commanded. "Down on your knees, so I can…"
The slave went down stiffly. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney saw his hand grip the loose links of chain tightly, holding onto them with whitened knuckles.
Rodney pushed the man's hair away. There were scars even here, he saw – small cuts as if made with a knife. The skin was pale at the hairline, but was reddened and bruised at the edge of the collar. Rodney touched that part experimentally. "It's attached to you," he realised. "Fused somehow, at the back of the neck." There was no space at all to get in. As he tried, running his finger along the edge, he heard the slave let out a soft breath.
There was nothing in that breath, no sound at all to tell Rodney that the slave was in pain, but suddenly he knew. Rodney recoiled, though part of him was already desperate to touch it again, to study it, to understand it. The slave's head was bowed, he saw, his fists clenched on the dead links of chain, his breathing rapid and taut.
"I'm sorry," Rodney found himself saying. "It's… I… I don't know what it is. It's attached to you somehow, and I think… I saw it move when you spoke – well, not really moving, but alchemy – not proper alchemy, of course, but Wraith magic. I've no idea what it's doing to you, but it's doing something, that's for sure."
"I can't…" The slave blinked, drops of moisture gleaming on his eyelashes, but he said nothing, only knelt there, bound in chains that could no longer tell his story.
The nameless slave had been born in the barrens; that was where memory started. He remembered dragging himself along on hands and knees, knowing only that he had to get away… No, that he had to get to somewhere, but he didn't know where. He remembered red blood on his hands, and raw circles at his wrists. He remembered sharp pain at the base of his neck, reaching into the back of his skull like clawed fingers, and there was hard metal at his throat, impossible to remove. His mouth had been dry, dry as the wilderness around him, and he had kept going step by step by step, until the Genii slavers had found him.
There was nothing before that. Nothing? No, there were fragments, but he thought they might be dreams, not memories. He saw snatched moments of pale-faced people stepping away from him, while he looked up at them, strapped to a table. He saw himself breaking free, smashing them with cold sharp metal. He saw himself in shining silver, racing fast. He saw…
Nothing. Only dreams. He had been born in the barrens. He had spent too long hoping that one day he would remember what came before that. He had been kept too long in places where he couldn't see the sky, but the cold told its own tale. He was always cold, but there had been three expanses of time when the cold had been excruciating. Three winters, and this was the third. One, two, three, counted in fingers on his hand. Four came next, and he had to concentrate to drag out the words for what came after that. Five, then six, then… The word vanished into the fog. It wasn't always worth fighting for things.
His new master was pacing excitedly, babbling words that made no sense. "It's doing something," he said, "that's for sure."
The man had touched the collar at the slave's neck. The slave had bent his neck for him. Once he would have fought; he knew that, he remembered that. Fighting only brought further pain. Fighting only brought extra guards and extra chains, and that was a hundred times worse than accepting the small pain, the small humiliation that had initially been offered. And so he obeyed now, but he refused to give them anything else that they wanted. He refused to beg and he refused to scream.
He still did not know why.
"I can't…" he began, but sometimes all words left him. Sometimes it was as if all possible words were in a room, while he stood on the other side of a locked door, unable to reach out to them. The images never left him, though. He was crawling in blood, curled around the pain of it. Jagged stripes of agony tore his back apart. He remembered harsh stone beneath his knees, and shards of ice on his naked flesh, and then those endless days when there had been nothing but darkness. He couldn't understand simple tasks, so they whipped him when he got them wrong, then gave him harder tasks, and whipped him because he still couldn't understand them.
"Can't… remember," he managed, feeling the sharp pain that came from snatching a word when all words wanted to stay hidden. "Can't… think, sometimes. Words… words…"
His new master frowned, perhaps not hearing him at all, probably not caring.
The slave knew better than to hope. At least he had seen the sky on the way from Kolya's dungeon, and he was warmer than he had been, and his chains hurt less than they normally did, though they still dragged heavy at his side.
"Wraith metal-magic!" Rodney exclaimed, as he pattered towards the kitchen. Wraith metal-magic in the flesh. They'd always known that Wraith alchemy had a blood component, but to see the power in the dark metal shimmering whenever the slave talked…! To see something akin to alchemy affecting someone's mind like that…!
Food first, though. His current ridiculous apprentice – what was the boy's name again? – was sitting at the table, stuffing himself full of white bread rolls. "What did I tell you about letting people in?" Rodney berated him, remembered anger taking the edge off his excitement. "I think it could be summed up as: don't."
The boy grabbed another roll. "But he came from the High Lord Cowen, my lord Adept."
"And I'm your master, and you obey me." Rodney flapped his hand sharply. "Get out. I never wanted you here, anyway. I never asked for rich papas to thrust their hopeless sons at me in the hope that I can shape them into something with even a fraction of my talent. Get out!" Of course, he reminded himself, keeping on the right side of all the rich papas was a good thing, but… "Get out!" he shouted. "Go!"
The boy ran, fumbling with the quickened lock at the back door. The world seemed quieter when he had gone, and the back of Rodney's neck quivered with a faint inkling of danger. You really shouldn't have done that, he thought. At least the other boys had left of their own accord, unable to cope with an honest day's work away from their doting mamas.
But Wraith metal-magic…! The excitement pricked again. Rodney scooped up a handful of rolls, grabbed a slab of spiced meat and a bunch of grapes, and loaded them on a plate. He cut a slice of seed cake, ate part of it before it could reach his plate, and cut another.
His plate was teetering with food when he returned to the hallway. The slave hadn't moved, still kneeling there with his hands taut at his side, though his head was no longer bowed.
"I…" Rodney swallowed. "I can't work here. Get up. I'm going to my workroom."
The slave was slow to stand, and seemed to waver a little before he was upright. Rodney felt a sudden urge to look away, but the collar drew him, dark and fascinating.
He cleared his throat. "Come on. Follow me."
It was warmer in the workroom. The slave stopped just inside the door, standing almost exactly where the soldier had stood. Rodney busied himself with his workbench, moving aside phials, clearing space for his plate. He grabbed a few grapes, munching them as he read labels. The sweet taste was welcome, removing the taste of whispered memories and dark, unpleasant things.
When he turned round, he saw that the slave was watching him, his face neutral, but his eyes anything but.
"You're no use there," Rodney snapped, covering other things that he might have said. "You're taller than me. I don't want to reach, you know. Sit down." He gestured sharply at a wooden chair.
"Yes," the slave said quietly, "master." He seemed to be watching something on the workbench, but then he frowned, that deep furrow between his eyes deepening. He sat down stiffly, perching on the edge.
"Good." Rodney's mouth was dry again. He ate another grape, then took a bite of the spiced meat. "Stay still." He moved to the back of the chair. "No," he said, when the slave's head began to turn ever so slightly. "Don't turn round. Bend your head forward."
The slave did, after only a fractional hesitation. He seemed tense, quivering beneath the skin, and Rodney could see the pulse in the side of his neck, fluttering fast.
"I'm…" Rodney pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, worrying at it. "I'm not going to hurt you."
The slave said nothing, perched on the chair, his head bowed. Wraith metal-magic! Rodney thought. The collar sat there, its power latent beneath its smooth surface. Had Cowen known what a gift he was handing him? Of course not, Rodney thought. Cowen had given him a malicious gift – something that outwardly had to be accepted as an honour, but had been meant as petty revenge for all those times Rodney had been scrupulously honest in stating his opinion of the glorious Genii. He had given Rodney an unintelligent, useless slave who was likely to turn on him. This was an insult disguised as a gift, but Rodney had the last laugh, didn't he, with a prize like this landing in his lap!
Rodney was prepared this time, and the wrongness of the collar struck him less painfully. He traced a few experimental patterns, without using a fixing for now, but nothing responded. He was in for a long morning's work. "Don't move," he said, as he returned to his bench, picking up his plate and a few phials of elementary fixings.
He worked one-handed for a while, working his way through all the simple patterns, and there it was, there – a glimmer. Metal was metal, after all, no matter what vile magic the Wraith infused it with. He wiped his fingers on his robe and grabbed another bread roll, following it up with a mouthful of meat and a few more grapes.
Outside, the chimes struck eleven. The slave's hair tangled in his fingers, marring his pattern. A drop of dark red fixing trickled down the slave's neck like blood. Tutting, Rodney leant forward, gripping the slave's shoulder to stop him from moving, though the slave wasn't showing any sign of it, sitting as still as a statue.
But, no, not still. Although his body wasn't moving, his breathing was shallow and tight, and his lips were parting slightly, then pressing together; parting slightly, then pressing together.
"You're hungry," Rodney realised suddenly. And he had been bending over his work, his face only a few inches from the slave's shoulder, breathing spiced meat… You should have asked, he almost snapped, but the dead chains mocked him with the stories they had told. "I'm sorry." It sounded limp. "Have some food. There's not much left, but…"
Rodney put the plate on the slave's lap, and the slave's hand closed on it, scarred fingers gripping the rim. The power in the collar moved minutely, the cold a dull spark against Rodney's hand. "Thank you," the slave said, "master."
"Don't call me that," Rodney said, suddenly hating the sound of it. It felt good coming from novices and apprentices, because it meant that they knew less than he did, that they were looking up to him for his knowledge. But this was a human being bought and sold, whose previous masters had tortured him and abused him. "I didn't buy you," he said. "I didn't want you. I don't want to hear that word, not unless…" Not unless I've earned it, he finished silently. It felt like a strange thing to think. Respect had never felt wrong before. He flapped his hand, covering all manner of emotions in impatience. "Eat. Go on. I've got work to do."
The slave ate silently, his throat moving beneath the collar as he chewed. Another strand of hair fell down, wiping away unfinished markings. "Hold your hair out of the way," Rodney snapped. The meat smelled doubly delicious now that he wasn't eating it.
The slave did, the chains whispering in the ordinary way of base metal. A grape slid off the untended plate, rolling halfway across the room before stopping. The chain-links trailed down from the slave's wrist, getting in the way, tainting Rodney's work with the presence of unrelated metal. The skin around the shackles was swollen and red.
"I can unchain you, of course," Rodney found himself saying. "It's simple work for an alchemist of my skill. I'm a master of metal in all its form. No locks can keep me out." He snapped his mouth shut, suddenly realising that this was an unwise thing to admit to anyone in the city of the Genii, even to a slave. He wiped suddenly-moist hands on his robe. "But if I unchain you, are you going to try to kill me?"
The slave said nothing. Another grape rolled off the plate, and Rodney was suddenly sure that the slave was following it hungrily with his eyes. The collar pulsed faintly with power that only Rodney could see. The slave made a faint sound such as someone would make if they had been about to speak, but had then thought better of it.
"Of course…" Rodney gave a nervous laugh. He could see the curve of the slave's spine beneath his thin shirt. "I expect you could kill me anyway, even with the chains on, if you wanted to." He remembered what the chains had showed him. It had taken four guards to hold this man down.
"I won't," the slave said quietly.
"But you'd run away." Rodney frowned. "And I'm going to have to be suitably grateful to Cowen for the gift, and it wouldn't do to… well, to lose you. You can't possibly understand how important it is that I don't annoy Cowen – any more than I already have, of course, but that's just my way – I don't suffer fools, you see. Not that you could get out of the house, of course. The locks are made with quickened steel that respond only to someone with the gift. With the idiot apprentice out of the way, the only person who can open them is, well, me."
The slave's left hand was pale on the plate, a recent scar standing out vivid and red. What other scars lay beneath the shirt, Rodney wondered. The chains had to be heavy, and even base metal could hurt.
"Just don't kill me," he said, as he reached for the phial of dark orange fixing. "That wouldn't be gratitude, now, would it? And I… I'm not a very courageous man. I'm not going to hurt you. Cowen gave me to you, you see – I don't know what game he's playing – and I'll just keep you long enough to satisfy him." Days? he thought. A whole month? The whole business could be over by then, and Cowen's goodwill an irrelevance. "I won't need you after I've taken the collar off."
It was simple work to persuade base iron to sunder itself, of course, especially as it still bore his touch from the unquickening. The chain parted from the slave's left wrist first, then Rodney moved on to the right. He had to kneel to work on the slave's bare ankles, and his flesh crept with the sudden vulnerability of it – kneeling at the feet of someone who had no reason to like him. He prattled as he worked – words he didn't remember any longer than it took to utter them.
The last of the chains slid to the floor. "There," Rodney said, standing up. He pressed his hand to his chest, feeling his fast-beating heart. "Now, hold your hair out of the way, and let me work."
The chimes struck many times and more times and lots of times. He tried to count them sometimes, but the words ran away from him after four.
His arm ached from holding his hair out of the way. His new master – 'Don't call me that' – was working on his collar, bent over him, fingers sometimes scraping against his skin. Memories blazed every time they did that: a knife, a touch of flame, a hand round his throat, robbing him of air. It was worse when you couldn't see their face. You never knew what was coming, then. You had to be prepared for things always.
Flame-iron gleamed in the grate, and the slave watched the light.
Why don't you scream? He didn't know. He went through the motions. He knelt when asked to, and he bent his head, and he called men 'master.' One by one he had yielded these things. One by one by one. They meant nothing, he told himself. It didn't affect what he was inside.
And what was he inside?
Nothing, the light told him, flickering with memory. You are nothing.
But still he didn't scream. Still he didn't beg or moan or react in any way. It meant that something was his. Your pain? asked the flame-iron, as the alchemist behind him muttered something sharply, and something clasped like a fist on the inside of his skull. Why cherish the pain? It's a sorry world if that's the only thing you have to call your own.
His lips moved, but he didn't say anything, just struggled to craft the words in his head.
But it is all that I have.
It was almost night. Rodney had worked through all the simple fixings, reaching deep into his memory for all the secret names he had ever known. It became a war, a duel. The collar shied away from him, but every time it reacted, every time it was obdurate, he took its measure a little bit more.
"There," he said, straightening his stiff back, scraping a scorched hand across his face. "I think…" He clenched his hand tight, closed his eyes for a moment, then placed both hands on the collar. "I think I have it."
He traced the pattern on the dark metal, weaving it with both fingers.
He had barely started when the slave's head snapped back. His spine arched, and his mouth opened in a desperate, silent scream of agony. Then he slid off the chair to lie on the ground, writhing and convulsing.
The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced before. It started at the back of his neck, but it shot like swift tongues of fire throughout his whole body. It was being burnt alive. It was being roasted. He was flayed, stripped, screaming, screaming…
"What's happening?" He heard it from far, far away, beyond the flames. "What's wrong?"
He lashed. He saw snatches of ceiling, and then his own fingers, clawing at his eyes. His body was nothing, charred into flame, charred, burnt… and Kolya with his knife, and a burning brand pressed to his stomach, and a whip on his shoulders, and it was crawling in the barrens, and being lifted up not by the hands of friends, but by the hands of slavers, and it was a whole cycle spent in darkness, and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, but no words to say it, no words, and nothing even to think it with, just a burning wheel of fire, a circle that he was falling into, down, down and away.
"I'm sorry," said the distant voice, a shadow glimpsed through flames. "Did I… I didn't know. I'm sorry. Stay still, and I'll…"
…and something on his neck – a drop of water, burning, then fingers rasping like sandpaper, and a voice speaking loudly in syllables that made no sense, then cool, then cool.
He was nothing, his bones burned away to dust and ashes. He lay there, and even the crystal light above him was too bright, and he turned his head and saw a scattered plate of food impossibly far away, in another world beyond the barrens.
"I didn't know," the man said, his master, the alchemist, the stranger. "It had defences. I felt them. It… Shadow! Did I break you?"
He had no idea how to muster sound. Even blinking took an impossible effort, his eyelids scraping as if they were full of ash.
"But you're still alive." He felt a hand brush clumsily across his chest, trailing the memory of fire as it went. "Heartbeat still there. Still breathing."
The slave frowned, managing to focus on the alchemist, but the man was already moving, turning into a spirit and fading away.
The alchemist sighed. "I really thought I'd mastered it." He sounded irritated, more than anything else.
The slave moved his finger, then the one next to it. He felt his heart speed up with the effort of it.
"Next time…" the alchemist said.
"No," the slave moaned, hearing his own voice like ash on the wind. "Please." Don't beg, he thought. Never beg. "Please," he whispered, "don't do that again, please."
The alchemist moved again, his face coming into view, the lips pressed together. "I'm so close," he said. "Do you realise how important this is?" He let out a breath; pressed his lips together again. Beyond him, the slave saw crystal lights trailing silver fire. "No, no," the alchemist said. "I… Can you stand?"
He couldn't. He couldn't. "Yes," he said, and almost added a 'master' because it was something to anchor himself on. The crystal light broke into shards, reminding him of other times he had picked himself up, had stared straight ahead, had stayed there unwavering even as masters had screamed at him, saying, 'Why won't you break?'
The alchemist's hands danced over the slave's arm, faltering there, then moving away. They were darting tongues of fire. No, he thought, they were ice and cool water. "You don't look well. Where can you sleep? I know, the apprentice's room – what was his name? It's… well, I don't really know what it's like. I never really bothered to look, you know? But it's… By the flame! I don't know how to do this."
He managed to stand, and it wasn't right that he should be supported, it wasn't right that he was helped, and he would pay for it in time, but… but his limbs felt as weak and brittle as charred sticks… and he had never had a bed before, not since his birth in the barrens… and fire had scoured him from the inside, and he had nothing…
Slate beneath his feet, cold and grey, and he fell to his knees, hands sliding away from him, and he only distantly heard the grumbling, only distantly heard the torrent of words.
He struggled to his feet again, and then there was a door, and behind it a narrow bed draped in blankets. He couldn't collapse onto it, he couldn't, but then the alchemist's hands were on his shoulders, pushing him down, and that made it an order – an order from his new master – and you had to obey those, even as you kept everything else encased inside.
"Can I…?" the alchemist said. "Should I…? Is there anything I should…?"
"No," the slave managed, voice scraping in his throat. "Nothing, master, please."
And then he was alone. And then he could let himself shatter, the tears burning clefts down his cheeks.
end of chapter one