“Not for much longer.” Frentis took the whip they had found on the overseer’s body. He had tried to run, displaying an impressive turn of speed for such a large man, but Slasher and Blacktooth were faster. Frentis placed the whip in Lissel’s lap. “I leave this matter in your hands, mistress.”
He went outside where Draker had gathered the slaves, the Realm folk standing apart from the others, some already holding weapons taken from the Varitai and greeting Frentis with bows and expressions of grave intent. The others numbered over forty people and displayed only fear. A clutch of girls, the youngest no more than thirteen, clustered together in a protective huddle, casting tearful glances at the men surrounding them. Only one slave was prepared to meet Frentis’s gaze, a trim man of middle years dressed in a clean dun-coloured tunic. He winced a little as the first scream came from the courtyard, the crack of the whip an indication that Lissel was a quick learner.
“You are One here?” Frentis asked the trim man.
He winced again as another scream sounded, then bowed low. “I am, Master.”
“I am not a master and you are not a slave. What is your name?”
“Tekrav, m— Honoured Citizen.”
Frentis studied the man’s face, seeing the keen intelligence he tried to hide with a servile stoop. “You were not always a slave. Those born to slavery have no names. What was your crime?”
“An overfondness for dice.” Another scream pealed forth, longer and louder, followed by a babble of desperate entreaties and promises. Tekrav swallowed and forced a smile. “And a dislike of resultant debt.”
“I am scribe and bookkeeper here. Should you require my talent, Honoured Citizen, I am at your disposal.”
“I’ll have need of it in time. Whether you choose to offer it is a matter for you.” Frentis stepped back, raising his voice to address them all. “By order of Queen Lyrna these lands are hereby seized for the Unified Realm and all who reside here afforded the rights and privileges due free subjects of the Crown.”
There was little reaction beyond bafflement, most remaining immobile, eyes fixed on the ground, the clutch of girls huddling even closer together.
“You’re free,” Frentis went on. “You may go and do as you please. However, any who wish to join with me and free your brothers and sisters are welcome.”
More silence; even Tekrav just stared at him in incomprehension.
“You’re wasting your time, brother,” one of the Realm folk said, a short but broad man with the teardrop scars of the forge visible on his forearms. “You’ll find more spirit in a whipped dog than this lot.”
Frentis gave them a final glance, seeing the truth of his words plainly enough and suppressing a sigh of frustration. Slavery is more than just chains, he knew. It binds the soul as much as the body.
“We leave in an hour,” he told the slaves, turning away. “You may take what you like from the villa, but I advise you not to linger.”
• • •
The Varitai exhibited no fear, kneeling with his arms bound behind his back, stripped of armour and undershirt to reveal the pattern of scars. They were less elaborate than the matrix that once covered Frentis’s chest, similar to Lekran’s markings but plainly administered with scant regard to artistry or the discomfort of their wearer.
“How much?” Illian asked, removing the cap from the flask.
“No more than a teardrop,” Frentis said, watching the Varitai keenly as she stepped closer, pouring a small amount of the liquid into the cap.
“Varitai are not as strong as Kuritai,” Lekran advised in a wary tone. He stood at the rear of the bound slave soldier, axe at the ready. “Could kill him.”
“Then we’ll try a smaller dose on the next one.” Frentis nodded at Illian and she upended the cap, allowing the contents to fall onto the scars on the Varitai’s chest.
Unlike Lekran there was no scream, the Varitai’s head snapping up, the veins in his neck bulging, teeth gritted so tight it was a wonder they didn’t break. His eyes widened, the pupils shrinking to dots as spit began to drool from his mouth. A second later he collapsed, convulsing on the ground with white foam covering his lips, his jerks gradually slowing to twitches, then nothing.
Frentis crouched down to feel for the pulse in his neck, finding it weak, and slowing. “He’s dying,” he said with a sigh. He looked up as a shadow fell across him, finding Weaver staring down at the scene with naked disgust. Frentis began to rise when Weaver’s fist came down in a blur, connecting with his jaw and sending him sprawling.
Frentis lay stunned, hearing Illian’s sword scrape free of its scabbard. After a moment his vision cleared and he found Weaver on his knees, both hands placed on the dying Varitai’s chest, paying no heed to Illian, who had touched her sword point to the nape of his neck. “Leave it,” Frentis ordered, getting to his feet and waving her back.
Weaver kept his hands on the Varitai’s chest for some time, his expression one of deep concentration, eyes half-closed and lips moving in a silent whisper. Frentis heard Illian stifle a gasp as the slave soldier’s scars began to fade from his chest, shrinking to faint pale lines in a matter of minutes. Finally Weaver removed his hands and rose, stepping back as the slave soldier issued a weary groan.
“He’ll sleep a while,” Weaver said, turning to Frentis with a stern expression. “Freedom will not be won with cruelty.”
Frentis rubbed his jaw, feeling the bruise already beginning to form and the iron tang of blood on his tongue. “I’ll leave it in your hands next time.”
• • •
They built a pyre for Lissel’s husband in the courtyard, liberally dousing the stacked wood with oil before doing the same to the villa. She had left the owner alive, though he was barely conscious, hanging bloodied and ruined from the posts. She had borrowed a knife from Illian and a small red lump was visible in the large pool of blood beneath his splayed legs. Frentis assumed he would probably find the flames a mercy.
They moved east as the sky dimmed, the burning villa casting a tall column of smoke into the air at their backs. The stables had yielded half a dozen carts but only enough horses for ten riders. Frentis sent Master Rensial and Lekran to scout their route and set the others on either side of their small column. The freed Varitai sat in the back of one of the carts, head lolling and features drawn in a perpetual frown of deep confusion. They had managed to elicit only a few words from him; naming himself only as Eight before voicing a keenly expressed desire to know when he would receive his next dose of karn.
“It’s a mix of various drugs,” Thirty-Four explained. “Subdues the spirit, dulls the memory and captures the will. He will feel its absence tonight.”
Frentis recalled the nights Thirty-Four had spent writhing and moaning in the forest after he had discarded his own vial. His recovery had been swift but he was a man of considerable inner strength and had at least the memory of freedom, whilst this Eight had clearly been a slave since birth.
“Have we freed this man or cursed him?” he wondered aloud.
“Freedom is never a curse, brother,” Thirty-Four insisted. “But it is often a hard road.”
Frentis turned as a shout came from the rear, finding a small group of figures running from the burning villa. He tugged his horse to a halt and waited as they came into view, Tekrav followed by the clutch of girls plus a few of the younger male slaves, all burdened with various bundles of clothing and valuables.
Tekrav came to a halt a few yards away, chest heaving and staring up at Frentis with a desperate appeal. Behind him the girls and the men huddled together, not so fearful as before, but still wary.
“Honoured Citizen . . .” Tekrav began, falling silent as Frentis held up a hand.
“My name is Brother Frentis of the Sixth Order,” he said. “If you join us, you will be free but you will also be soldiers. I offer no protection and promise no victory.”
Tekrav hesitated, glancing back at his companions in search of guidance. They shuffled uncomfortably until one spoke up, a dark-skinned girl no more than twenty, her voice coloured by a faint Alpiran accent. “Your men will not touch us?”
“Not unless you want them to,” Draker said, quickly lowering his gaze at Frentis’s glare.
“You will not be mistreated in any way,” Frentis promised the girl.
She exchanged glances with the others then stepped forward with a nod. “We will join you.”
Frentis briefly scanned the bundles they carried, picking out the telltale gleam of gold and silver amongst the rolled blankets and clothing. “Keep hold of any weapons,” he said. “But we cannot be burdened with loot. Discard it.”
He sat and waited until they complied, tossing away their shiny cups and plates with varying degrees of reluctance, Tekrav wincing as he gently laid a small, gold-embroidered tapestry on the ground.
“Sister Illian,” Frentis called her over. “These people are in your care. Commence their training on the morrow.”
• • •
They came upon the horse breeder’s villa the next day, finding it far richer in spoils but also much better protected, boasting a complement of over thirty house Varitai. It sat atop a wide hill surrounded by enclosed fields where horses were set to grazing and mounted Varitai moved in well-organised patrols.