Below is a pair of scenes I’ve written for the upcoming origin story of Lain. They show you the earliest moments of his story, and give you an idea of just how far back this story goes.
The deep south of Tressor was not a land known for its forests. Most of the kingdom was made up of vast plains. Those plains near to rivers and lakes were fruitful, some of the best farmland in the world. Those far from water were dry and barren, giving way to two vast deserts. Further north was the Great Western Forest, and a quite a few respectable forests could be found toward the border with the northern kingdoms, but trees in the far south were scattered and sparse. Where a handful of them stood together in what could be charitably called a grove, hunting was usually poor. Of course, that depended on what one was hunting for.
In the stifling heat of a deep southern night, a pair of men were moving with slow care, stepping lightly to keep the crunch of dry grass from betraying their approach.
“This way. I saw prints. He can’t be far,” hissed the first of the men. He was short and wiry, skin baked to a golden brown by the sun and hair cropped short. His clothes were a billowy, sand-colored cloth. The sleeves of the shirt and legs of the trousers had been rolled up to provide relief against the heat.
“How do they always manage to make it this far south?” moaned the second man quietly. He was taller and stouter, with the same short hair and billowy clothes. He also was weighed down with ropes and sacks, and was swatting irritably at a cloud of flies that seemed dedicated exploring his nose and ears.
“I don’t ask questions. I just bring them back. You do the same and maybe you won’t need me to come along with you next time,” replied the smaller man.
The many farms of Tressor needed workers. Most of the smaller ones were run by families and communities, with workers drawing a wage, selling their goods, or simply living off of what they grew. The larger plantations, however, tended to work their land on the strength of forced laborers. Slaves could come from any number of sources. Captured soldiers from the increasingly common skirmishes in the north and clashes with disloyal tribes to the south and east made up most of the workers. Others were brought back on ships from far off lands. Some were simply slaves because their parents had been. The only thing they had in common was that, at some point in their life, they would look beyond the walls and yearn for their freedom. If they decided to act, to flee their enslavement, there were men who made their living by hunting them down and bringing them back. One would be hard pressed to find two more typical examples than the pair wading through the bushes that night.
They stalked toward a tight cluster of four trees, the ground between them obscured by a clump of short, prickly bushes. Bootprints led into the stand of trees. A quick search revealed that there were no prints leaving it. The men communicated with short, sharp hand gestures, indicating what each should do and where each should be. When the thin man was satisfied that each was in position, he drew a short, curved blade from his belt, crouched, and launched himself with a bellow over the bushes. There was a bizarre, high-pitched squeal and a rustle of bushes, then silence. No shout of anger or fear, no fleeing fugitive, just the constant drone of flitting insects in the shaded moonlight. The thin man looked over the ground and grimaced in frustration.
“Never mind, Latak,” he grumbled. “He’s dead.”
“What? Dead? What do you mean he’s dead, Antas? How?” replied his heftier partner, Latak.
“You won’t believe it. See for yourself.”
Latak thumped toward the bushes, no longer worried about being heard and angry that he wouldn’t be earning his bounty. When he reached the point where his thin partner was standing, he grimaced. “Augh. Is that a malthrope?”
“Can you think of anything else that looks like that?” remarked Antas.
On the ground, covered with wounds and dried blood, was a creature. It looked as though it was a cross between a human and a fox, with the beast’s head and fur applied to an otherwise human form. This one was a female. It was dressed in rags and, judging from the looks of the injuries, it had been dead for a few hours. The slave they had been hunting was a short distance away. His face, neck, and arms were striped with the slashes of claws and peppered with the punctures of teeth. In his hand was a crude club, little more than a branch.
“Looks like he stumbled onto a hiding place that was already taken and they did each other in,” Latak reasoned. “But what made that noise?”
His partner made a sound of disgust. “This is why I’m the one who ends up doing all of the tracking.”
He slowly crouched, one hand out, and when he came near enough, darted it into the shadow of the nearest bush. More earsplitting squeals rang out as he pulled free a struggling blur of red fur and tattered cloth.
“Enough! Quiet!” he growled, shaking the little creature until it lost the will to struggle.
It was a young malthrope, barely a toddler, and dangling pathetically by its tail. The little beast was more animal in appearance than the adult, with spindly limbs and stubby, almost paw-like hands and feet. Its eyes were locked on the motionless form of the female on the ground. Quietly, it made a sound somewhere between weeping and whining.
“This is probably why our bounty got killed. The females are extra vicious when there’s a fresh litter to protect,” he said. With the toe of his boot, he rolled the dead creature to its side, prompting another agonized squeal from the struggling beast in his hand. “Someone got to it already. No tail.”
“Well,” said Latak, “At least we won’t leave empty handed. I hear they pay upwards of seventy entus for a baby malthrope.”
It was widely felt that malthropes were a menace. Stories told of them carrying off children and raiding livestock. The creatures were the villains of more than their share of bedtime stories, and were always a safe thing to blame for your problems if you weren’t happy with your lot in life. One of the few things that the north and south halves of the continent could agree upon was that wiping the creatures out would be an improvement. Thus, a price had been put on their heads, or more accurately their tails. Slicing the tail off of an adult and handing it in to the authorities would net you a small fortune in entus, the silver coins that lined the pockets of the more well off of Tressons. For young malthropes, though, the rules were different.
Latak fetched a sack. “I just wish I knew why we have to turn the babies in alive.”
“Oh, you didn’t hear? A fellow up in Delti was turning the things in, oh, two or three times a week? People got suspicious and took a closer look. Turns out he was just catching foxes and dressing ’em up a bit. Since then, they don’t pay unless you can stand ’em up on their hind legs.”
“Figures some scoundrel would ruin it for honest folk,” he said, taking the struggling thing from his partner and shoving it in the sack.”
A short night and a long day later, Antas and Latak trudged back into their camp around sunset. It was a typical camp for slavers, a cluster of low, lashed down tents set up in a circle around a large bonfire. Every aspect was designed to be set up and taken down quickly, and to be easy to lock down and defend. In all, it had the feel of a prison combined with a traveling market. Carriages fortified with bars – little more than rolling cages – were crowded with their valuable cargo; recently acquired workers. Most were members of scattered nomadic tribes, but not all. Mixed among them was a pair of fair-skinned elves from the land across the sea to the east, a place called South Crescent. There was a short, stout dwarf from deep in the mountains, as well. Each had been taken far from his home, and all but the newest of them had been stripped of his will to struggle by time and the lash of a whip. Now they sat with empty eyes, waiting.
“Latak! Antas! You had better have a good reason for getting here so late!” growled a voice nearly as grizzled as the man it belonged to. He was the slave master, a man named Grahl, and his leathery skin was a veritable road map of scars from years of encounters with men and women unwilling to become his prize without a fight. “Where is the man I sent you after?”
“Jackal food, by now,” Antas remarked.
“You killed him!” the head slaver roared.
“He got himself killed. Ran afoul of a malthrope vixen protecting her young,” he explained.
The slave master grumbled a few creative profanities under his breath as he wiped away the sweat beading on his brow. “Did you at least get its tail?”
“Someone got it first. But we got the kit,” he said, holding his hand out for Latak to supply the bag.
Grahl snatched it away, prompting a few weak growls of complaint. He untied the bag and glanced inside, grimacing slightly at the sight of the occupant. The little creature, barely concious after the rough trip and intense heat, stared up through dry, red eyes.
“Gah. They really do look like drowned rats. And the smell,” he muttered, handing the bag away. “Someone dump some water on this thing. If we want the bounty for it, the ugly little monster is going to have to be alive. And we’re probably going to need that money.”
“Something got you on edge boss?”
“On edge… Do you want to know what’s got me on edge?” he replied with a sneer. “Look over there. Do you see that dust cloud to the north? Do you know what that is? That’s a plantation owner. He’s coming to buy a dozen peak condition slaves. Do you know what I have? Eleven. You were supposed to bring me the twelfth!”
“So they take the eleven and we pick up a spare in the next raid.”
“Our reputation is pitiful, idiot. This will be what? Eight, nine times we over-committed? He won’t be back, and he’ll spread the word that we can’t fill our orders. We can’t take another stain on our record. We’ll be finished!”
“Well why do you keep selling more than we have?!”
“Because people want more than I have on hand. When I found out this plantation was looking for my whole stock of one-stripe slaves, I foolishly trusted my best men to bring back the runaway alive!”
“Perhaps he will accept a discount.”
“He paid already. I convinced him we needed the money to pay for transport.”
“Well then perhaps he will take a refund.”
“I spent the money already, Latak! Gods… this will ruin us!”
As the distant carriage trundled ever closer, Grahl alternated between berating anyone within earshot for their laziness and ineptitude and attempting to miraculously identify a twelfth slave that was worth selling. Most of his latter efforts went as far as recounting the occupants of the carriages, as though it was possible he’d merely overlooked someone during the previous twenty counts. Eventually time ran out, and the prospective customer was stepping out of the sturdy carriage.
The man who stomped his boots to the sandy earth of the slave camp was instantly recognizable as a lifelong farmer. He was getting on in years, but those years had tempered him like steel, leaving him with a shock of silver in his otherwise black hair and beard. He was every bit as sun-broiled as the slavers, as was the case for most everyone in the land of Tressor. His build was lined with dense, gristly muscle. It had been earned years ago, the product of decades of back-breaking labor, and even now that the hardest of the tasks fell to his workers, the wiry muscle was slow to fade. Everything else one might need to know about the man could be gleaned from the expression on his face. The set of his jaw and the hardness of his gaze spoke volumes of the determination and effort he poured into every enterprise he put his hand to. A slight sneer of disgust twisted his mouth, the sights, sounds, and smells of his surroundings nearly turning his stomach. Nevertheless, this was a purchase important to his business, and thus important to him, and he would not leave it to underlings, no matter how trusted. Out of his sturdy and practical carriage stepped two servants, the sort of burly men one tended to bring along when doing business that may go wrong. A third servant remained in the carriage, reins in hand.
Grahl marched up to the newcomers, a practiced look of hospitality hastily locked onto his face in place of panicked anger. The seller and the buyer approached each other, and each slapped his left hand on the right shoulder of the other, a gesture which in another culture would have been a handshake.
“Jarrad! This late in the day I feared you would not make it!” Grahl said.
“I keep to my schedule, Grahl. Are these my men?”
“Yes, yes, ready for inspection!” he said with a brittle grin. “As you can see, some fine ones here. All of them unbranded or single-stripe, as requested. You’ll get many good years out of each of them. Worth every entu.”
“Mmm,” Jarrad grunted.
“Look, here. You see? We’ve managed to find a pair of elves. Not much muscle on them, but renowned for their stamina. Should be able to do the work of two humans each.”
“Mmm,” came another grunt, this one more irritated.
“And we’ve even got a dwarf. Good strong mountain stock. He ought to do the work of three men, easily.”
“I count eleven slaves here. Where is the last?” Jarrad rumbled.
“I… ah…” Grahl began, realizing too late that he should have set a few minutes aside from his angry screaming to craft a convincing lie. “Disease, I’m afraid. It came upon him quickly. We separated him from the rest, but he died. Had to bury him deep. Couldn’t be helped.”
“I need twelve.”
“But the elves! And the dwarf! They-”
“I don’t care how hard they work, Grahl. This is about numbers. I paid you for twelve healthy men because I have twelve jobs that need doing. Either I leave here with twelve one-stripe slaves, or I’ll take back my money and find someone who can provide them.”
“I assure you, I am the only slaver in ten territories who deals exclusively in quality slaves. You won’t find another slave to match these for twice the price.”
“Fill my order as requested or I will take my money and go elsewhere,” he said with the slow, deliberate tone of a man on the brink of violence. Responding to the unspoken threat, his hefty servants formed up on either side of Grahl, causing a stir among the more loyal of the slaver’s men.
“Of course, of course. Just one moment,” he said bowing and stepping back while snapping his fingers insistently for Latak.
“What do you want, Grahl?” asked the far from enthusiastic underling.
“Bring me Ben,” the head slaver muttered quietly.
“You don’t honestly expect-”
“I wasn’t asking for your opinion, Latak,” he growled, “Just get Ben!” Turning his attention back to his unsatisfied customer, he displayed his incomplete, yellowing smile. “Now, I may not be able to provide you with a replacement of the same level of quality on such short notice, but I assure you this man will be an asset to you, as he has been to me and my men for quite some time.”
After a moment or two of anxious silence, a man was led from within one of the tents. In a camp such as this, it wasn’t uncommon to see someone being led. Thanks in large part to the fact that all but the slavers themselves were in heavy restraints, nearly everyone had to be led, if only to keep them from attempting to escape. There was no threat of such a thing in this case, and only minimal restraints, but he still had better reason than most to require aid in finding his prospective buyer. He was old. Old enough to be a grandfather. While in actuality he wasn’t very much older than Jarrad, by slave standards he was ancient. He was also better dressed than the other slaves. Rather than the torn and filthy remnants of the last clothes he’d worn as a free man, he was wearing a long-sleeved tan robe, caked with dust. The waist was tied inexpertly closed with a length of rope, and the front was open enough to reveal a tunic and trousers of a matching color. A scraggly wreath of gray hair wrapped around the back of an otherwise bald head, and a wild mass of whiskers had claimed most of his face. Most notable, though, was a strip of cloth tied in place as a blindfold and explaining the main reason for the guiding hand.
“A blind man!? You had better be joking, Grahl,” Jarrad Barked. “You, slave. Show me your arm!”
“Are you talking to me, sir?” asked the blind man with a crisp, precise manner of speech that seemed out of place in a place like a slaver camp.
“Of course I am!”
“Well, there are a number of slaves about, sir. If a man can’t make eye contact with you, you really need to be more specific than that,” he replied, rolling up his right sleeve to reveal three deep scars, short lines arranged like the rungs of a ladder. The first was ancient and faded with time, the second somewhat more recent, and the last fresher still. The rest of his arm was littered with no fewer than six marks, ranging from letters of two different alphabets to simple insignias. The arm told a story, as was its purpose. The symbols told of past owners. The lines spoke of value. It was never a good sign to see too many of either.
“You would offer me a three-stripe slave in place of a one-stripe?” Jarrad growled.
“What I am offering you is experience, Jarrad. This man has had a half a dozen owners, yes, but he learned everything the first three had to teach, and taught the second three all they knew. You’ve got good strong backs, but Blind Ben here will keep their equipment in good repair, and teach them tricks that will make them work harder and faster than you’d believe. You and I both know a man doesn’t end up with six slaver’s marks on his arm unless there have been six bright and wealthy men interested in his service.”
“Six marks also means five bright and wealthy men felt he was beyond his usefulness,” Jarrad countered.
“Six, sir, seeing as how I’m back at the market, so to speak,” corrected Ben.
“You would speak to your master that way?”
“You haven’t bought me yet, sir. Grahl is my master,” he said evenly. “But since you ask, yes, I would speak to my master that way. I’m too old to be worrying about who hears what.”
Grahl’s fists tightened, his muscles tensed, and another moment would have brought a strap across the slave’s back, but a wry grin came to Jarrad’s face.
“Right. I’ll take him, but he’s still not a single-stripe. I want the difference in silver,” Jarrad said.
Grahl twitched. “Yes, that… that is perfectly fair. I… I can have your silver for you in-”
“I… I have something better,” Grahl proclaimed, hissing again to Latak, “The bag! The bag!”
The weakly struggling bag was thrust into his hand, and he held it out to the dissatisfied customer.
“In this bag is a malthrope. A baby,” Grahl said.
“What good does that do me?” ask Jarrad, recoiling from the sack.
“You know as well as I do that a live baby malthrope fetches no less than seventy entus. That should go a long way to making up the difference. And turning one of these in is a civic service. People will respect you for bringing this in.”
“Where did you get this thing?”
Grahl opened his mouth, but shut it again quickly before the truth tumbled out. He couldn’t very well say that his men had found it while hunting for the slave he’d just said died of an illness. After taking a moment to remember to plan out his webs of deceit with a bit more care in the future, he wove the best one he could manage on short notice.
“My brother found it… with its mother. The creature had died giving birth. We managed to keep the little pest alive so we could claim the bounty.”
“This hardly looks like a newborn,” Jarrad said, tugging open the bag and peering inside.
“… Look, that doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is you’ll gain standing with your community if they know you’re taking the time to help rid the area of these little monsters, and you’ll have the money you’re missing.”
Jarrad looked long and hard at the man holding the bag.
“I’ll throw in food and water enough to keep the thing alive until you get home.”
The customer’s jaw tightened and he snatched the bag away. “Very well, since it is clear you don’t have my money anymore. Load up the blind man and the food, and for heaven’s sake, don’t say another word. This deal has gotten twisted enough.”
Blind Ben was led to the barred carriage, and when there were enough armed men on hand to make those already inside think twice about escape, the door was opened and he was helped in. Before the door closed, Jarrad upended the bag onto the floor of the carriage, causing the ragged ball of red fur to tumble out. The breath of fresh air and shock of the fall had brought its senses back and it made a mad scramble for the door, but bars were slammed hard enough to knock the beast to the center of the carriage floor. A few halfhearted kicks and shoves sent it scurrying for cover, the same way one might treat a rat that had been dropped into a crowded room, and the same way the rat might behave. Ben had wearily taken a seat on one of the plank benches that lined each side of the carriage, and was too tired to grope for the creature when it wedged itself underneath. When it became clear that the thing wasn’t going to climb out, the other slaves left it cowering and trembling behind the blind man’s legs, its eyes wide and its heart pounding.
There you have it. That’s about five of the forty-five or so pages I’ve written. It represents the first of at least three eras in Lain’s life that will be described in the pages of the prequel. Thanks for reading!