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art by Agata Maciagowska

Death Before Dishonor

Shannon Leight lives in Virginia with a mammal, a reptile, and an anthropologist. If she's not working or writing, she's probably gaming.

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?"
"No escape?"
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."
All I heard was the first part, and I rejoiced. Tears burned my eyes, and I pressed my lips to his hand in the kiss of fealty, before I turned away to teach Ikato how to count to two.
As the days passed, though, I began to wonder if Thorn would keep our bargain. The last short man in our Eight showed no signs of clumsiness or stupidity, and I waited in vain for Thorn to work whatever strange magic he had worked before. Three nights before our training finished and we would march from Dogstown out to war, I hissed to Thorn, "My brother! Where?"
Thorn twitched his shoulders as if to shed a bothersome insect. "I only see, Branon. I can't make things happen, only wait and grab the chance when it comes."
I shook my head, disbelieving. "Too many chances happen. You make them."
"I make nothing. If I could, would I be here?"
There was logic in that, but I didn't want to believe him. How could he not be causing these accidents, so fortuitously timed? "You do. You make them."
"I don't. All I can do is see what might happen, but that changes with every choice anyone makes. I found an Eight where I could see bad chances coming, and I waited. I don't need to help them, the Dogsmen do it for me."
It was true enough: Dogstown is not kind. On the other hand... "Kere. When?"
"Soon, if it happens at all. Tomorrow?"
I didn't like that note of uncertainty. Thorn had always seemed so confident, and I began to fear that I might escape without Kere. Could I track him down later? Find one Eight among eight hundred and buy it? It seemed an impossible task, even more impossible than finding Kere the first time.
I needn't have worried. The last man died the kindest death Dogstown has: in his sleep, for no reason anyone could see. I have never been so glad to see a man die.
You would have been proud of both of us, when they put Kere at the end of the chain. We glanced at each other, as new chainmates will, but said nothing. He was thinner than ever, and his skin had a sallow hue I didn't like, but he stood straight enough. Only in the dark that night did we embrace. We said almost nothing; I did not ask him what had happened to him since we were parted, and he did me the same favor.
We marched from Dogstown the next morning, and it was then that I began to worry. Kere struggled to keep up, sweating and scratching at his skin constantly. The sallowness I had noticed and dismissed the first day seemed worse, though that might have been the better light. By the end of the day, he was staggering. He fell asleep as soon as we stopped, without even eating. We split his ration among the rest of us, but I could barely eat my portion.
When it was dark enough, and the Dogsmen out of earshot, I demanded of Thorn, "What's wrong?"
Thorn sighed. "Something in his gut. Worms, most likely, and there a while, by his symptoms. If he had rest and quiet, it's nothing that would kill him." He gripped my hair fiercely then, the only time he ever hurt me. I held very still. "Our chance is soon, maybe tomorrow, and I didn't whore myself out to miss it because of you. You demanded that I buy him into our Eight. He's your responsibility now. If he can't keep up when the time comes, remember that I warned you."
"No warning!" I hissed back.
"I warned you as best I could. Whatever you think me, Branon, I only see imperfectly. Too many chances and choices to know." This time I heard regret, but I didn't care.
"My brother!"
"Your brother. And what about your life? The worms and the Dogsmen have him now. Will you let that tie you here? I won't."
Thorn's words echoed in my head all night. They were still in my head the next day, when our chance came. I don't know what I had expected, but it wasn't the storm that overtook us that afternoon. I've seen storms like that only a few times; the rain fell so hard I could barely see the other end of our Eight. A fight at the front of the column drew the Dogsmen away, and there we were, at the edge of the road.
Thorn called out, "Now!" in a voice that would have been loud if the rain hadn't nearly drowned it. Still, we had all been waiting for it. We lurched into motion, headed for the trees a hundred yards away. Over the rain, I heard Thorn calling, "One!"
And suddenly I understood. The others had either always understood, or were struck by the same realization I was. We were faster than it should have been possible for an Eight to run, Thorn's voice calling the cadence. Our legs swung in synchrony, not brought up short fighting against the chains or each other. Eight pairs of long legs ate up the ground to the trees. To my relief, Kere kept up.
Thorn didn't call a halt until we were well away from the road. The area had been leveled in some recent year, and the trees had not had time to drown out the undergrowth. Finding a place to hide an entire Eight was difficult, but Thorn managed it, following a game trail I could barely see into a clearing among briars.
As we broke into the clearing, Thorn gestured at the boy beside Ikato and said to me, "Tell him he can take off his chains now."
I translated Thorn's words and was surprised when I received a grin in answer. I soon saw that if Thorn had picked me for my tongue, he had picked the boy for his bones. He slid his hands and feet out of the chains as easily as you or I might slip on gloves. "I was an acrobat," he explained.
The boy was still straightening up when Thorn said, "Tell him that if he runs now, the Dogsmen will catch him. If he stays with us, he has a chance to run beyond their reach, and help us do the same."
"As true as anything I can see. There's a village a few days' walk from here. The blacksmith there will strike our chains, if we can reach him unseen. If one of us can enter the village and bring him and his tools to us, our chances are even better."
I repeated all this for the boy, who nodded with more enthusiasm than I would have thought possible. The Dogsmen have a talent for beating enthusiasm out of their slaves, but I suppose youth and the promise of freedom were as good an antidote as any. And Thorn had proved already that what he saw was worth considering.
For the sake of the others listening, I repeated Thorn's words in each man's language. I saw their shoulders straighten as they took in my words. We crouched in the mud and the rain, staring at each other in amazement and dawning hope.
All except Kere, who curled around his belly as though it pained him, his breathing short and ragged. Thorn looked at him and then at me. He said nothing, but I heard his words as clearly as if he had spoken. I looked away, my own hope stillborn.
When I looked again, Thorn's eyes were closed, his chin tilted up as if to drink the rain that was even now tapering off. He turned his head slowly left and right, as if he was trying to locate the direction of a sound. His lips shifted and twitched with unvoiced words, but my Navosh was too limited for me to guess what they might be.
He lurched to his feet so suddenly it startled the rest of us. We sat staring at him while he stretched at the end of the chain like a dog eager to hunt.
"Up, Branon. Tell them to get up. We need to go now!"
I didn't need to translate: the urgency in his voice did it for me. Even Kere uncurled and staggered up without help, bringing up the end of the chain as we set off again. We didn't know where Thorn was leading us, only that it would be better than Dogstown and the Eights.
As the afternoon wore on, I could tell that Kere's pace was too slow, holding all of us back. Thorn strained forward, the chain between us pulling my right arm uncomfortably, while Ikato lagged behind, putting the same pressure on my left arm. The boy ran at the end, catching Kere when he stumbled, but we were still too slow.
It was dark when we stopped again, this time in a cave that was barely large enough. We crowded in without complaint, glad enough for the shared warmth after the wet and chill outside, though the chains tangled and rattled for a time as eight men shifted around each other in preparation for sleep. Unable to see and hardly able to move, I was surprised when lips touched my ear and Thorn whispered, "Tomorrow we run, and run hard. If we don't, the Dogsmen will catch us by nightfall, and the Eights will seem a pleasant place against the mines. He keeps up, or he dies."
Something deep inside my chest trembled, and I found I couldn't draw breath. We all knew what failure would cost, but I made a promise to you, Ria. I made a promise to myself, that I would bring Kere home. The Dogsmen didn't leave me much, but I had clung to the thought that I could redeem all the degradation and dishonor of the Eights if only I could bring Kere home to you.
I didn't sleep that night, though I closed my eyes and tried. It was a relief when light began to creep in and Thorn prodded the others to wakefulness. We crawled from our shelter stiff and aching, ignoring the hunger that cramped our bellies. Thorn rose to his feet as soon as he had cleared the cave, but the rest of us remained on the ground, saving our effort for later. Five pairs of eyes looked around curiously, as if their owners hoped to recognize some landmark. Thorn's eyes were closed, his head turning from side to side. Kere's eyes were also closed, his body curled forward as if braced for a blow. My eyes were on Kere, as if I could give him some of my strength.
As if he heard my thoughts, his eyes opened and met mine. He struggled to his hands and knees, moving like an old man with swollen joints. With all of us clumped together, the chain was long enough that he could crawl to me. Ikato made room between us so that Kere and I could lean our shoulders and heads together. Out of habit, we kept our voices low.
"I heard Thorn, Branon," Kere murmured, and I felt that same stuttering in my chest, as if my lungs had forgotten how to work. "I know we need to run."
"We'll make it," I managed weakly.
Kere said nothing for a while, his neck bent as if his head was too heavy to hold up. When he spoke again, it was not the question I expected. "Do you trust him?"
I hesitated, trying to think past the pounding of my heart. "Trust him how?" I asked, stalling.
"Do you trust him to get us home? That whatever strange talent he has won't abandon him? That he won't abandon us?"
I nodded enthusiastically, trying to impart some energy to Kere. "Yes, yes, I trust him for that. And he can't abandon us, not yet anyway." I shook my left hand, to make the chain rattle.
I knew I had erred when Kere straightened and looked at me, his face drawn in lines of pain. His eyes bored into mine, as fiercely as Thorn's ever had. When I looked away, he whispered, "Tell Ria I'm sorry. She was right. You were both right. I should never have left."
I wish I could tell you that my gift for words held true, that I roused him to new strength, but I couldn't even give him comfort. There were no words in me. I stood, and Kere turned where he sat to put his back to me. Ikato looked around at us when the chains pulled, the curiosity on his face shifting to a careful blankness as I stepped up behind Kere. He turned his back again. The others looked away. They gave us the only privacy there is in the Eights.
The chain was long enough to loop around his neck. It was not the worst death the Eights have to offer, but it was at my hands. I promised myself I wouldn't lie to you about it, for whatever my promises are worth. When it was done, we found rocks heavy enough to crush his hands and feet, to free him from the chains. We had no way to bury him. I hope the Dogsmen didn't find his body.
I've spent enough paper on this, now. I hadn't meant to write so long, but you deserved to know what happened to Kere. And to me, though I don't blame you if you wish now that I had left you ignorant. I can only tell you again that I'm sorry. I will spend the rest of my life trying to redeem my honor, but there is no redemption in death. Of all the lessons the Dogsmen taught me, that one haunts me the most.
There's a trader leaving here tomorrow, and he's promised to take my letter to you. Thorn tells me it will likely reach you, and I can't bring it to you myself. I don't ask you to forgive me for this cowardice, or for any other, but I thought it better you should know than wonder. Pray for Kere for me, sister. I promise you won't hear from me again.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 21st, 2012

Author Comments

This story started as an exercise for my writing group: write a story using the words ashes, conqueror, luminosity, hue, and febrile. “Ashes” and “conqueror” led me to a story about a slave, but one who was educated enough to use the other three words. So I had a character, but no plot.

A few days later, I got stuck in traffic on my way to work. I found myself wishing for the ability to see a short way into my own future, like a magical game of warmer/colder: a little nudge telling me if I should turn right or left. I started thinking about all the ways I could use such a gift, and then that idea and the word list crashed together into a plot.

- Shannon Leight
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