art by Agata Maciagowska
Death Before Dishonor
by Shannon Leight
I'm sorry, Ria. The words are inadequate, but they're all I have. Reading them again, I'm not even sure that they're true. Does saying I'm sorry also require me to say that I would make a different choice, if I had the chance? If so, then I don't even have that inadequate statement to fall back on. Only the tale itself, which I have owed you for a long time. Forgive me for being too much a coward to write you sooner.
I remember how confident I was when I set out, so sure I would find Kere in the first place I looked. Weeks from home I found him, but that was only days before the siege closed in on the city. I sent a letter then, but I don't know if it reached you. In a way, I hope it didn't: it was a different man who sent it than the one who writes you now. The siege lasted months, and those months were hard enough. Then the city fell and the conqueror marched in to claim the ashes, and Kere and I and every other living body were sold to Dogstown.
Do you remember, when we were children, how we loved to scare ourselves with traders' tales of Dogstown? I know now that those traders lied to us, though their intentions were only the best: no one would ever tell a child what that place is really like. You're not a child anymore, but I've protected you and Kere since Mother died. My hand shakes too hard to write when I think of telling you everything I saw. Everything I did and had done to me. I thought once that there were things I would rather die than suffer through, but I've learned better since you saw me last.
Kere and I had no skills the Dogsmen valued, so they sent us both to the Eights to be chained to strangers, ankle to ankle and wrist to wrist. Slave-soldiers are bought to pad a company's ranks, to lead the charge and die first, not for skill or swiftness. What does it matter if their best pace is a lopsided hobble? Kere and I were separated then, as we were mixed in with other slaves. The Dogsmen moved me regularly for a while: they liked to move the slaves around, to keep any group from plotting. The last time, they added me to a group where each of us spoke a different tongue, thinking we could not plot if we could not talk together.
I saw Thorn for the first time when they chained my ankle to his, and I was stopped by the sight of him. Shorn and battered, he was still as beautiful as anyone I've ever seen, man or woman. A Northman born, that pale skin gives him what I can only call luminosity, like a full moon. The Dogsmen tried to sell him for a bedslave, but he shouted from the block that he had the whore's pox, and no one would take him. They chained him in the Eights as punishment.
Of course I knew none of that when they chained me beside him, but I had enough experience by then to be afraid. What horrible thing had he done to be in the Eights and not in some pleasure house, where he so clearly belonged? He was as tall and thin as I, made for books (or beds) rather than swords.
That first night, he glanced at me once as they fitted our ankles together, then seemed to dismiss me. It should have made me less afraid, but it didn't. I lay in the dark, waiting for some new horror, when I felt him shift beside me and lean in. His lips brushed my ear, close as a lover, and he whispered, "Branon." Then he rolled away and said nothing else that night.
I lay as if he had stabbed me, too stunned to move. No one had called me by name in so long that I hardly knew what to make of it now, on the lips of a stranger. I was neither famous nor infamous in the Eights, so why would gossip spread my name? I tried to tell myself it was only chance, that he hadn't said my name, that it was some word in his language that happened to sound like it, but I didn't convince myself.
The next few days were normal enough, and my fear began to pass. Thorn looked at me no more than he looked at any other, and he did not speak to me again. I learned his name from the man on my other side, Ikato, who came from the far south and is as dark as Thorn is pale. He spoke some dialect of Edani that was close enough to the one I knew. After all those years spent learning new languages in our quiet little study, it almost made me laugh to practice them in the filth and fear of Dogstown. I spoke them as poorly as you might expect, for a man who learned the words in books, but Ikato and I managed well enough. We were careful to whisper, and only where the guards wouldn't see us, but it was good to hear a friendly voice.
The first week in my new Eight was my easiest since before Dogstown, before the siege, before Kere took it into his head to run away. No one tested me, or demanded anything of me except the normal daily practice. Does it surprise you to know that we practiced? When I was first moved to the Eights, I could barely walk. I fouled the chains on either side of me constantly, bringing half or more of the group to the ground every time. Even once I could walk without disaster, there was still the wooden shortspear and shield to learn. No one buys an Eight for skill, but no one pays good money for a slave, only to have him accidentally gutted by the man beside him.
At the end of the first week, one of my new Eight died in practice. The chains snarled around his legs and he fell, pulling all of us down with him, along with the Eight behind us. In the tangle that ensued, he took a spear in his throat from the man beside him. The Dogsmen flogged the spear's holder for that, for clumsiness and the cost of a slave. Not so badly that they risked his loss as well, but badly enough that we struggled back to the barracks in the dark.
Before we could find a quiet place to sleep, Thorn drew us around the building to the privy trenches. I thought nothing of it until he stopped to talk to one of the Dogsmen. That was strange enough, since Thorn rarely talked to anyone, but even stranger was that the Dogsman answered him, and eagerly. They spoke so quietly I couldn't understand the words, but they seemed to strike a bargain before we moved on to the trench. Before dawn, the empty place in our Eight was filled, by a man nearly as tall as I, and I learned what Thorn had bartered for him, why the Dogsman had been so eager. I did not watch, but I could not close my ears as well as I could close my eyes.
After the Dogsman left, Ikato leaned close to whisper, "Before you? Same."
I touched my fingers to his throat. "Same death?"
"No. But a death, and... that, and then you, next night." He patted the top of my head, then used my hand to pat his own head. I flinched at the noise our chains made, but it was only loud to me. Chains were always clinking in the barracks, as men turned in their sleep. "Man before you was short," Ikato said. "Very short."
I considered this a while, and thought of the others in the Eight. Two were of medium height, short beside the other six. Any Eight where the men were of a similar height always had an easier time walking, as their strides didn't cross each other. If Thorn had somehow bribed a Dogsman to let him pick his Eight....
Thorn's breath on my ear made me jump. "Tell Ikato to stop talking." It was the first time he had spoken to me directly. He spoke Navosh flawlessly, without an accent.
I hesitated, then turned towards Thorn instead. My Navosh is far from flawless, but I managed, "Why stop? Truth?"
"Tell Ikato to stop talking."
I passed along the message, and Ikato went corpse-still beside me. Thorn had never shown he understood Edani before, or bothered to stop our talking. Why now, we both wondered. I turned back to Thorn and pressed my lips to his ear so I could breathe one dangerous word. "Escape?"
Thorn went still himself, so that for a moment, it was as if I lay in a grave between two dead men. I didn't move away, my face still so close that I could feel him nod, ever so slightly.
He shook his head, then turned so he could whisper in my ear. "Talk to the others. I cannot. I only know a little Edani, and my own Navosh. I picked you for your tongue. Use it as well as I use mine."
Even after all I had seen in Dogstown, I admit that made me blush. In my embarrassment, I lost his other words until later. It was only in the grey dawn of the next morning that they came back to me. He picked me? Picked me how? I had never seen him before, and he was far more noticeable than I among the thousands in Dogstown. If I understood him, he meant me to use my tongue for speaking, not for other uses, but how did he know that I spoke more than the Edani and Navosh he had already heard? I tried to ask Thorn all these questions the next night, but he would not answer. He lay mute in the dark until I gave up and turned to the task he had given me.
It was never easy to talk to anyone not chained beside you, but with Ikato's help, I could talk to the boy beside him for a little while. He spoke neither Navosh nor Edani, of course, but we found a little trader pidgin in common after a while. For all his height, he was the youngest of us, only fourteen as best he could count it. Beside him was one of the shorter men, the one who had been so recently whipped, and I did not need Thorn to tell me not to bother. I waited, and wondered what would happen.
The next accident was not an accident at all, but pure stupidity. The short man got in a fight with a Dogsman, screaming obscenities until the blows fell so fast that the screams turned wordless. I had seen it happen before, though never so close. As hard as the rest of us tried to pull away, most caught a blow or two. Ikato's nose was broken, the boy's eye blackened.
Ikato and I traded a look when the new man appeared a day later, as tall as any of us, perhaps a little taller. I waited for the Dogsmen to notice, but we weren't the only group that was mostly of a size. It would happen by chance sometimes, in a group this large, and we moved no easier when we practiced. Thorn especially was clumsy, as if unused to his long limbs. My chains bound me up more often than they used to, as if I had forgotten how to walk in them. Or as if someone beside me tugged on them to make me trip. The Dogsmen cursed us for our clumsiness, but we were never so incompetent as to get more than a touch of the whip to hurry us along.
It should have been a surprise when I found a language in common with the new man. My double handful of languages was not enough to account for my successes here, where a hundred dialects could be heard each day. So it should have been a surprise, and yet, it wasn't. I watched Thorn, and waited.
Two nights later, Thorn spoke to me again. He gripped my right leg, chained to his left, and whispered, "One. This is one." He prodded my left leg. "Two." He leaned across me, took my hand, and put it on Ikato's leg, the one chained to mine. "Two." He reached farther, nearly lying across me so he could guide my hand to Ikato's far leg. "One." He withdrew his hand but stayed close enough to add, "Teach them those words in Navosh."
I couldn't quite see how it would help if all of us had our legs numbered in opposition to the men on either side. I knew it mattered to Thorn, though, so I took my only bargaining chip firmly in my hands and whispered back, "My brother. Kere."
Thorn waited, giving me no help, though I think he knew what I wanted.
"One man left. My brother, for my tongue."
We waited together then, each hoping the other would back down. He had picked me, he said, and so I gambled on my value. Finally, when it became clear I wouldn't take back my words, Thorn whispered, "Does your brother look like you?"
"No, only tall."
Another long pause. "Would you listen if I told you this won't be what you hope?"
He shook his head. "Escape if it works, but...." He stopped, tried again. "If I buy your brother into our Eight, I don't think it will be what you hope."
I shook my head, stubborn and refusing to listen. If we escaped without Kere, then all of this was for nothing. "Do you know?"
Thorn hesitated again. "I know very little. I only guess."
"Dogsmen piss on your guess." I didn't mean to say it, but it slipped out. My heart was pounding, my mouth dry. I hadn't hoped in months, and now it made me ill.
This time, the silence dragged on so long I thought I had lost my chance. When Thorn spoke at last, I nearly wept. "Your brother for your tongue, then. But remember that I warned you."