Chapter 1: Susurrus

1. Susurrus

A miasma of desperation entwined with sweat permeated the air, palpable in the morning heat.  If misery had a smell, this was it.  Dizzy from the growing heat, Lizzabit lay in the corner of the slave pen.  The stench of unwashed bodies had long faded from the senses, and the pain of her beating had faded, merging with the lingering malaise of being naked, burned, and shackled.  Her beating was laughable.  These guards were amateurs compared to her former Master.  To him pain was an art.

She had loved her Master, striving to serve him as a good slave should.  He repaid her loyalty by destroying her.  He named her Lizzabit.  In the old tongue it meant worthless.  He humiliated her and dehumanized her.  Then he took her memories, leaving nightmares in their place.

His efforts to break her spawned what he sought to destroy.  An Entity.  Where she was submissive, it was defiant.  It wanted to hurt him, to kill him.  She feared it.  It pushed her to reveal her ability, caring not about the consequences.  She was a changeling, reviled and feared.  The law demanded immediate execution.

She hated her Master.  She longed for the death’s elusive embrace.  She cackled hoarsely at the dual irony.

Thinking her mad, the other slaves shifted further away, as if she were contagious.  She felt like mocking them, particularly the young girls whose fate she had endured repeatedly, but she did not want to lose the last vestiges of her humanity.  Little enough remained of the person that she had once been.

The slaver who bought may have unwittingly provided her with the opportunity she sought.  Staring at the old shackles, the new dent meant their magic might not work and she would be able to shape-shift.  It was her only chance.  Before the day’s heat could sap her strength, she concentrated on her long-denied ability, exerting her will against the shackle’s magic.

Vantor’s shortcut through the slave market brought him closer to his destination than he expected.  The Maisxera had instructed him to find a woman and train her as a bodyguard.  Knowing the task’s importance, he set his standards high.  None had met them.  As his search lengthened, the Maisxera’s patience diminished.

Throngs of people filled the market trying to beat the growing heat.  Passing a birder, he entered the less crowded slave market.  It wasn’t the shortest distance, but it was faster than pushing through a mass of people.  Despite his hated of this place, he scanned the market as he passed through.  There was more flesh to be seen than in a red-lantern district.  Every age and race was represented, Vantor noted with disgust.  People deserved a chance to determine their own fate.  He, at least, had magic to keep himself cool.  These miserable souls had nothing.

As much as he wanted to buy them all and set them free, it would support slavery.  Not buying them didn’t help either; there was no lack of customers.  He’d much rather see slavers and slaveholders skewered and upended on pikes.  This was not his land.  He had to maintain restraint.  He was only passing through on business.

A commotion broke out.  People began to gather; any distraction from the heat and stench was welcome.  A fight was well received.  Vantor held back to observe, stepping onto a bench to gain a better vantage point.  Somehow a slave girl had gotten free.  She was using her shackles to choke a guard.  Some slaves, seeing no way out, sought death by pushing the slavers into killing them.  Having lost all hope, riding the Reaper’s cart was preferable to living in misery.  But this was different.  Slavers used magic to control slaves.  Yet, this girl was free.  Vantor watched as she fought for her freedom.

The guard collapsed to his knees.  Veins stood out all over his head and neck.  He struggled for the precious breath of life, but she was not forthcoming.  Other guards rushed to help their comrade.  The slave was preternaturally aware of her surroundings.  She drew the struggling guard’s sword, swung him around to shield herself, and planted the sword against his chest.  The nearest guard failed to see the sudden maneuver in time and was impaled near the groin.  He bowled over the pair as he went down.

The girl lost the weapon in the tumble, but barely managed to dodge the pair.  One hand was still shackled, and she was pulled down.  She grabbed the fallen sword and blocked the next guard’s blow.  The blow shook her arm and slid off the sword and away from the girl.  With a scream of pain, she pulled her hand free, losing flesh in the process.  Dodging the next swing, she threw the sword into the guard’s face.  The ineffectual attack distracted the guard long enough for her to turn and flee.  The guard was joined by another and they chased after her.

“Go after the girl,” Vantor ordered the two guards with him, “and take her back to the House.”  Smiling, Vantor made his way back to the House gate.  This day was turning out better than expected.

Lizzabit weaved through the crowds, pursued by the slaver guards.  She risked a glance back and saw two more guards had joined the pursuit.  She tried to run faster.  She pulled tables over and knocked down merchandise, leaving a herd of angry vendors in her wake.  Customers turned thieves scrambled for loose goods and impeded pursuit.  She rounded a bend and launched herself into a merchant’s tent.  The merchants leaped up in surprise as she grabbed a knife and sliced open the back of the tent.  She ran out the impromptu exit before the merchants could raise any protest.  She spotted a guard and ran in the opposite direction.

She knew being naked would draw a lot of attention, so she swiped some boots and clothes, discarding the knife.  She discarded the useless items and stopped long enough to put on boots that fit.  She took off again.  Her lungs burned for more air, each breath free.  She slid the remaining tunic over her head and bounced off a guard’s chest.  He back handed her and she fell to the ground.  He kicked her in the gut.  She lay curled in a ball, crying.  She had failed.

He spit in her face before stepping on her head.  “Knewya be’a, hellion.  I’m gonna hurt yi when I git back.”  He grunted and fell to the ground.  One of the black guards was on top of him, pounding his head into the ground, teeth and blood flew from his mouth.

He stood and pulled her up.  “Come with me, if you want to live.”  He pushed through some raving vendors, punching one who refused to move.

She had never seen anyone like him before.  The screaming crowd pressed in.  She panicked and struggled to break free.  Just before everything went dark, she heard, “I don’t have time for this.”

* * *

Lizzabit woke with a start.  There was no light, but she could naturally see in the dark, an ability that had been supressed her entire truncate life.  Everything looked different than she was used to.  An elven servant sat nearby and said something she couldn’t understand, then stood up and calmly approached, she said something indiscernable in her melodic language, smiled, and left.

Lizzabit realized that she was wearing a plain loose robe instead of the stolen tunic she had obtained from the market.  She surveyed the room.  It was sparsely furnished.  On the bedside table was a pitcher of water she assumed.  She held up her hand and noticed her skin was no longer damaged or sunburned.  Someone had taken the time to heal her wounds.

Eventually, another figure entered the room.  He was powerfully built and attired in warrior’s armor.  He was no ordinary guard.  She didn’t know what the various things on his armor represented, but he had the look of authority.  He asked a question in that melodic language.  After getting no response he said, “Do you speak the trade tongue?”

“Yes.”

“Good, my name is Vantor.  I am the House Battle Master.”

“What am I doing here?”

“Direct and to the point, I admire that.  That is entirely up to you.  I want you to understand that you are no longer a slave, we don’t tolerate that here.  Just lie and rest for an hour.  A servant will come and fetch you.  Just follow her when she bids you follow.”

He departed.

She laid there for a while.  She never had anyone admire her for anything that didn’t involve their pleasure.  She didn’t feel she should fear Vantor, and his actions didn’t seem those of a slave master, but she was still leery.

She must have fallen asleep; a servant was gently tapping her.  The servant beckoned her and Lizzabit followed.

The entire house was unlit, which wasn’t a problem, just unexpected.  They made their way through several corridors.  The house was large.  She admired the statues, but the paintings and tapestries could not be seen in the pitch black, even with her ability to see in the dark.  There were a lot of children running around.

Eventually she was led into an office that was as functional as it was opulent; elegant only began to describe its grace.  It was designed to impress visitors and display power.  She imagined kings being envious of the riches displayed in this room.  It far outstripped anything Lord Fabius had ever achieved.  It was also the first light she had seen in the house.  The servant spoke briefly with another man before departing.  He led Lizzabit to a chair, indicating for her to sit, and asked what she would like to drink.  Upon being met with a blank stare, he offered to get some tea.

After Lizzabit finished taking in the room, she noticed the other people for the first time.  They were elves, black-skinned elves, same as the guard had who knocked her out.  She hadn’t heard of their kind before.

“Thank you,” she said when the servant placed a hot cup on the table next to her.

He inclined his head and stepped away.

She took a couple of sips; it was the most exquisite thing she had ever tasted.  She moaned her satisfaction and smiled at him.  When she set the cup down she noticed the woman behind the desk was watching her.

“I am glad to hear the tea meets your approval.  Welcome to House Corbain.  I am the Maisxera; you may address me as such.  What is your name?”

“I don’t have one.  I’ve been called many things, but I don’t want any of them,” Lizzabit replied.  “What do you want to call me?”  Belatedly, she added, “Maisxera.”

“Then what would you like to be called?”

She hadn’t expected that.  She thought for a few minutes, taking sips of her tea.  Suddenly, from some hidden part of her mind, a memory emerged.  “The oldest memory I have, of my mother I think, well the only one I have, is walking in a field with the wind blowing and the soothing sound it makes.  What is that called?”

“Susurrus,” the Maisxera supplied.

“Then that’s what I’d like to be called.”  The servant scribbled on a small parchment and handed it to the Maisxera.

“Well, Susurrus, I know you are concerned about your fate.  Let me establish, that you are no longer a slave.  Here is a patent certifying your freedom.”  She rolled it up and gave a small scroll to the servant.  He placed it beside Susurrus’ tea.  “We will also register your freedom with the Ministry of Commerce.  Should someone try to enslave you again within the kingdom of Narthony, it is illegal for any slaveholder not to verify the veracity of your freedom when you declare it.  Not always the easiest thing to press, but many a disgruntled guard would turn their employer in for the reward.”

It seemed so unreal.  The full weight of her freedom hadn’t hit her yet.  Here was a master that elevated her to the mythical status of free.  “So, what am I to do?”

“That is your choice.  You can either walk out of here, or you can enter into my employment.”

“I can’t do anything, unless you have need of sex.”  She finished off her tea and it was replaced with another cup.

“I have no need of such services.  Instead, I would like to offer you training for a special task.  It will not be easy and require an immense amount of dedication on your part.”

“What will I be doing?”

“I require a woman capable of combat.”

“But I don’t know anything about fighting.”

“While you do have less experience than I would desire, you demonstrate some characteristics that my son believes will be vital to the task.”

“And if I don’t accept?”

“Then you walk out of here free.  A small sum will be provided to see you through until you find a regular craft.  I will also see to it that you are taken to a place of your choosing.  But I believe you will take the offer, since rejecting it will result in scant monetary security for a short period of time.  When the money runs out, you will have to find some means of providing for yourself.  And, as you stated, you have no craft not involving exchanging your body for money.  It is a degrading and destructive means of support.  You still have your looks, but they will fade, especially when you engage in those activities.

“I do not mean to paint a grim picture or force your decision, but those are the facts.

“Alternatively, I may be able to find employment for you elsewhere.  I suggest taking my offer, it is far more dangerous, but I think you will find it more rewarding.  Think it over, Susurrus.  I will give you a few days to enjoy the hospitality of the House.”  She turned back to the papers on her desk.

The woman was up front with her offer and brutally honest about her prospects.  With few skills, she would end up performing drudge work or become a whore.  Neither prospect appealed to her.  There is a chance she could do something else, but while the offer was open-ended, it wasn’t specified.  Susurrus drank the rest of her tea as the servant stood by waiting to escort her out.

“I’ll take it,” she blurted, without a moment’s regret.

The Maisxera looked up with a slight smile.  “Very good.  The House Master will take you in hand and see to it that you are taken care of.  Good day.”  She turned back to her paperwork.

Susurrus picked up her patent of freedom and followed the manservant out.  He passed along some instructions in elven to the servant waiting to escort her back.

When she had departed, Maisxera Sabell asked, “Well?”

“I think she will do fine,” Keldin, her bodyguard and advisor, appraised.  “She meets all the criteria, and Vantor believes she has qualities that we didn’t consider.”

Sabell contemplated his words for a moment before nodding.  “Keep me abreast of her progress.”

Susurrus followed the servant and marveled at the size of the house.  She must have walked a mile, yet they were still inside.  This place was a wonder.  She took in everything she could see.  They stopped several time while the servant sought directions, eventually leading her to an important person.  After exchanging a few words, the servant departed.

The man turned to her.

“Welcome, I am Jorgen, the House Master.  I see to the daily affairs of the House.  And you are?”

“Susurrus.”

“A lovely name, it means the wind blowing through the branches or over the field, I believe.”

“Yes.  The Maisxera just gave it to me.”

“I have been instructed to see that you are pampered before your training begins.  This means for the next half month, you will report to me after you break your fast.  I will see to your care from there.

“While a room is being prepared for you, I will show you around.  You will be given a monthly stipend of five gold thillars.   I will also see to it that you are properly clothed after your bath.”

“What’s a stipend?”

“It’s your wages, pay for work that you do.  You will also be given an allotment of five visits to the Ithacarium – the city baths – for massage and oil treatments.  You will receive one tomorrow and then every few days afterwards.  Then in half a month, you will be under the tutelage of Battle Master Vantor to learn the art of combat.”

“What is tutelage?”

“It means he will be training you.”

“Where am I?”

Master Jorgen replied, “You are in House Corbain, in the deep elf city of Tullisawn Rhiodruelin Vis, on the world of Luarvionshua.  In the dwarven tongue, Jorundge Toridriak, and in one dialect of the human tongue, Unandri.

She was shown around various parts of the house and learned where to eat, what areas were off limits, and what rules there were to follow.

After eating the most exquisite food she could ever remember, Susurrus lay in the hot bath.  She had no recollection of ever being afforded one.  Surprised by seeing a mirror, she looked at herself for the first time.  To dehumanize her, Lord Fabius wouldn’t allow her to see one.  She felt bold just looking at herself.

She looked her body over.  It was more suited to a man, Lord Fabius had told her on numerous occasions.  She was
nearly flat-chested and bore many scars, mostly on her body, particularly from shoulders to thighs.  The slavers magic would heal wounds, but left scars.  Her skin was dark with dirt and her unkempt hair was greasy.  Before settling to the bath, she moved the mirror to see herself.

Even as she lay in the bath, she couldn’t believe her change in fortune.  Seeing is believing, she had heard.

She shifted her skin so that the scars disappeared.  She hadn’t shifted in so long it was almost a struggle to recall the ability.  She played around with her looks, adjusting her height and weight and shape.  She made herself look like a man, an old woman, a child and many other shapes.  She enjoyed the freedom of change and found she never really wanted to stay the same, but knew the reality of the situation.  She could change secretly, but this was the shape she must always retain.  The other races feared changelings and killed them when they were discovered.  She knew just how important it was for her not to change shape in front of anyone.

Vanity set in and she altered her shape a little.  If she was going to be stuck with it, she might as well enjoy it.  She enlarged her breasts a bit, perky without requiring support.  She felt fine with the slight flare of her hips.  She was going to be trained to fight and round hips probably weren’t going to help in combat.  There was no point in hiding behind something if your rump stuck out.  She kept its small size.  She flattened her stomach and toned her legs.  Her arms she left skinny and would add bulk and tone as she trained.  No one would think the change unusual.  She kept up this routine until she was pleased with her shape.  She didn’t change her face for fear of getting caught.  Her memory may be gone, but Lord Fabius didn’t take away one thing.  Fear.

Once she was finished, she settled back into the water and relaxed until a servant woke her.  She sat up and was assisted with getting out.  She never had anyone help her before.  She looked back at the tub and noted that the water was still hot and steamy.  And grimy.  The mirror revealed that her skin had lightened to an olive shade and her hair was honey brown.  When she came out she was met by Master Jorgen.

“Well, that bath has certainly refreshed you.  You hardly look the same, different really.”

Susurrus started to worry that she had made too many changes.

“You’ve been in there nearly three hours.  You could rival the youngest daughter at that rate.”

“Sorry, Master,” she looked down.

He lifted her chin and looked consternated at her, “Please, do not act subservient toward me.  I am in charge and I expect my orders to be followed, but I am not a slaveholder and you will not be beaten.”

After she was shown to her room, she found a small plate of food that she devoured.  She then collapsed into the softest bed she could ever recall sleeping in.

Of all the things inflicted upon her, she hated Lord Fabius’ breeding program the most.  In a strange way it was a blessing, when one skewed their view, the guards no longer desired to rape her.  That left the physical torture and prolonged hunger.

Her arms were bound behind her and she was lifted up until she was just off the floor.  Her joints were pulled to the maximum extent that they would go without tearing.  She was in pain and to pull against them made the pain more excruciating. 

Sometimes, they liked to hear her screams, often inflicting extra pain to feed their desire for more.

“Son, I have something to show you.”  Lord Fabius pulled out a pear shaped item and held it forth to his son.

“What is it, Father?”  Floygeo asked, taking it from his father to inspect.

“It is a pear.  It’s used to help make working quieter.  You put it in its mouth and twist the key up here to extend it.  It opens the subject’s mouth, making it harder for it to scream.”

Floygeo looked unconvinced.  “Why would we want that?”

“It’s for those times we want to work in peace and quiet.”

“Do they make them larger?”

“Seven Heavens, boy,” Lord Fabius laughed.  “Why would you want that?”

“They can be used elsewhere as well.”

Lord Fabius smiled proudly, “I’ll see if I can have larger ones made then.  Now, this one is a work of art.  Note the beautiful floral pattern of the lilies.  The relief of the flowers and the points of the leaves are exaggerated to help give it more hold.  Try it.  If you like it, I’ll commission larger ones.”

Floygeo looked at her, malevolent delight in his eyes.  She started to scream – soon she couldn’t. 

She screamed bolt upright, hyperventilating.  It was another nightmare.  She lay back in bed, afraid to close her eyes to the images inside her eyelids.  She concentrated on the bed’s softness to take her mind off the nightmare.  After the first eightday, the guards stopped responding to her nightly screams.

She screamed again in sheer frustration.  Lord Yillar Fabius.  She wanted to kill him, hear his scream and make him beg for mercy.  Somewhere deep inside of her, something stirred.  The Entity.  Escape had not freed her from it.  It revealed to her something she had missed, something is wanted, something it would soon have.  She would be trained in combat.  She, and by extension it, would have the ability to kill him soon.  Then maybe the nightmares would end.

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