The once-slave and now-champion swore his fealty to Duke Usifan. He is one of the Grand Flock. And this is the highlight of his life.

Tthe whip cracked through the air, startling all those in its vicinity, though the one it was intended for did not so much as pause in his flight. “Stop, slave,” a harsh and brittle voice yelled, alerting all those in the market to the fact that a scrawny, malnourished boy was committing the worst crime imaginable, that of attempting to flee his master and righteous punishment.

The boy squirmed under a stall, upsetting jars of oil, dodged a flock of sheep and leapt over a beggar, only to be tripped by his staff. He fell hard, hitting his head, momentarily stunning him. He sat up with a hurt look on his face as he gazed at the one who had betrayed him. He had thought to find sympathy from a fellow unfortunate, but there was none. The toothless, bedraggled old man merely smiled slyly and then shouted, “Over here—I have caught him for you, fair mistress.”

The heavily made up, grotesquely obese and sweaty woman, Saw’ahy’s mistress, glanced over from the oil merchant’s stall where she had been haggling over the appropriate amount of reparation for the spilled merchandise and ordered her taskmaster to retrieve the wayward slave. Saw’ah began to shiver in fright, knowing full well what awaited him at the hands of grizzled man. Even at his tender age, the boy had seen and experienced enough to know that there were truly evil men and women in the world who enjoyed inflicting pain on others, who gained a pleasure from it that could be seen in their flushed faces and sparkling eyes, moistened lips and quivering bodies. Saw’ah had been forced to watch the last ‘disciplinary’ session and had witnessed the death of fair Lala—a young girl just on the cusp of maidenhood. It had been whispered she had been disciplined for refusing to go to his bed, but the official story was she had stolen a comb from the mistress—which had been found under her pillow. Her death had been long, bloody and painful and the taskmaster had walked around in a state of euphoria and good cheer for ten days after. It seemed, though, that his euphoria had ended and a new sacrificial lamb was needed—Saw’ah.

He had accompanied his mistress and the taskmaster to the market in a state of anxiety, knowing his mistress to be surly on the best of days, apt to inflict the harshest of punishments for the smallest of misdemeanors. And so he had held onto her purchases as best as he could, hoping none of the silks were soiled, though they piled so high in his tiny arms that he did not see the outstretched foot that had tripped him, spilling the fine cloths into the muddy road. He had leapt up, his alarm compelling him to do something he had not considered—flee. It had been an ill-fated attempt, all things considered, and a very short one, as the taskmaster grabbed the little boy by the arm, hauling him up and wrenching his elbow in the process. Saw’ah cried out in agony, only to receive a slap on the head. The beggar who had betrayed him received a gold coin from his mistress before she, too, smacked him around his head and chest with her purse.

Something snapped inside the boy, a font of rage which he had always kept hidden, knowing that his mistress and the taskmaster would see it as a challenge to their authority and would discipline him all the harsher in an effort to break his will. This anger which overcame him, rolled over him as a black mist, blotting out all sense and will power. He growled like an animal, kicking at the taskmaster’s limbs and then wrenched his own arm even further, slipping out of the man’s grasp. Saw’ah leapt on the mistress and bit, sinking his teeth into her arm. She shrieked, trying to get him off, but even the lashes of the whip from the taskmaster did not deter him. His jaw was clenched and his teeth kept their hold, severing skin and sinew as they scraped against her bone.

His mistress had by now fainted by the time the city guard had ripped him from her side and hauled him off to the jail to await certain trial and execution by crucifixion. It was a crime to accost one’s master, an upending of the social order and set a dangerous precedent to other slaves and so must be punished accordingly.

Saw’ah, still unconscious, did not feel a thing as they threw him into the cell on a pile of stinking and soiled straw, there to await his merciless fate. His arm was turning purple; his back flayed from the whip lashes and his face a mass of bruises and contusions from the repeated blows of the gold-filled purse, yet he felt nothing. How long he lay there, unconscious and dying, he did not know, but he awoke to the sound of birds chirping, with gauze over his eyes. Panicking, he tried to lift his arm to take the cloth off of his face, but found his arm heavily bound. Raising his left arm, he found that his torso and chest had been wrapped in bandages, as had his head, with only his mouth and nostrils opened to the air. He began to scream, thinking this a new punishment of his mistress, when a soft voice said, “Be calm, you are safe.”

He did not know that voice, but he believed it a trick of his mistress and so he began to scream in primal terror, willing his anger to return. His left hand pulled at the bandages around his eyes, causing wounds to reopen and fresh blood to spill. “Silly boy,” the voice said sternly, “You will have permanent scars if you do that.” The man who had spoken called for help and soon another pair of hands restrained Saw’ahya’s left hand, tying it to the bed and then a reed was inserted into his clenched jaw and a warm, sweet liquid poured down his parched throat. He spluttered, half drowning, until he swallowed it. Whatever the liquid was, its efficacy could not be disputed, as he felt himself suddenly cocooned in a soft, warm light and drifted off to a painless slumber.

He awoke sometime later to the sound of voices by his bed. Not wanting to alert them to the fact he had returned to consciousness, he instead lay very still, hoping to find out more about the strangers and what they had intended for him.

“Oh Sam’uel, what have you done?” the female said.

“I’ve rescued him,” the soft male voice said.

“I know that—but—well, if only you could see him. He has been horribly beaten and may yet be disfigured. Is that the life you wish for him?”

There was a long pause and then a gasp from the woman, “oh, I’m so sorry. I spoke without thinking.”

“No, I understand what you mean Hana. Yes, life is difficult at the

best of times and 100 times more so with a disability such as mine. But what was I supposed to do? Leave him on the cross? I was there at the market that day. I heard everything. That child committed no error and was beaten harshly. I had to do what I could to save him.”

“How much did you pay the guard?”

“Three gold coins to ensure he was taken off the cross early and brought to the criminal’s graveyard right away. I was waiting there for them and the transfer went smoothly. The city does not care once the example has been made and so I was able to bring him here to you.”

“Very well, I will do my best to heal him. What will you do with him?”

“Do?”

“Well yes. You saved him, he belongs to you.”

“He is not my slave,” Sam’uel said harshly.

“Indeed, he is but a child. You cannot save him and then abandon him. You must have some idea what to do with him.”

“I, uhh, hadn’t thought that far ahead. I suppose I will take him with me and teach him my craft, if he shows an aptitude for it.”

The two continued speaking as they left the room, leaving little Saw’ah alone with his thoughts. The man seemed kindly enough, but the boy did not know whether he should feel any gratitude to his savior or not. Life had been cruel. Born to a tavern wench who had popped out more children than she could care for by diverse fathers, he had been labeled a ‘difficult and unruly’ child since his birth and had been left to fend for himself, until his mother realized she had a secondary stream of income at her disposal and subsequently sold all of her children, except the two youngest, who showed promise of becoming beauties. It was his misfortune that he had been sold to the most feared of all mistresses in the city, well known for the speed of which she disposed of her slaves and required new ones. He had been eight at the time and had lasted one year in the household, avoiding the eye of the taskmaster—until that fateful day.

His malnourished and unformed brain knew, as he lay there, that in death there had been release and that his next life might have been better, as it was through no fault of his own that this one had been so pitiless and filled with suffering. He had not even felt the crucifixion and so could not remember any of the events since being wrenched up by the taskmaster clearly. It would have been an optimum way to pass out of this life for one such as him, an ending to the suffering. And he had been deprived of it but one do-gooder.

The rage rose up in him again, angry that he had been forced against his will, with no thought of his wishes, to remain in this life with the exchange of three gold coins. Once again he belonged to someone and his life was not his own. He screamed then, in terror, anger, pain and frustration. He screamed out his wrath against his fate, until he could scream no more. A soft pair of arms lifted him up and enfolded him in an embrace, the first of his young life and the little boy began to sob with heartbreak and despair.

“Shh, young one. You are safe now. You must heal and then you will see—all will be well.”

Through the hiccups and the sobs, Saw’ah said only, “I will never bend my will to another again.”

Sam’uel heard him and frowned, thinking of how best to help the young boy he had saved.

The day finally dawned when the bandages came off and Saw’ah found himself looking at the craggy face of a kindly man, but where his eyes should have been, there were gaping holes. Saw’ah gasped in spite of himself and Sam’uel just smiled and said, “I know. It always takes a little getting used to.”

“What happened?”

“Some priests of Daemon came to my farm when I was younger than you. They burnt my pregnant mother and father at the stake and forced me to watch.”

“Did you put your own eyes out?” Saw’ah said, a vision of horror filling his young mind. Though he could not comprehend sorrow at losing a father or mother, he still knew that death by fire was the worst imaginable.

“No, one of the men, a high ranking official in Dilmunia, had his mask slip during the ceremony. It was he who put my eyes out, so I could not identify him. He was caught anyhow by the Grand Flock and put to death.”

Saw’ah nodded his head sagely, “It is good that he and the others died. I should very much like vengeance on all who hurt me.”

“Will it make you happy?” Sam’uel asked.

“Very happy.”

Sam’uel said nothing, but began to feel the boy’s head, neck and right arm. “It feels fine to me. I cannot tell if there are any scars or not. How do you feel?”

Saw’ah raised his right arm, swinging it around. “There is no pain, but it is weak.”

“That is to be expected. It will take time to heal completely. What about your senses? Can you see well? Hear? Smell? Taste?”

Saw’ah tested his senses, satisfied all was as it should be. His eyes fell on a looking glass on the other side of the room. He rose unsteadily and tottered over to it. He looked in the glass tentatively, ever mindful of what Hana had said about his injuries. A small smile came to his lips as he saw that there was but one line, just above his right eyebrow, but that he was otherwise unmarked. In fact, that scar gave him a sort of ruffian look, he thought. It would make other boys think twice about picking a fight with him.

“Well?” Sam’uel asked.

Saw’ah suddenly remembered the man could not see and said, “it looks fine, just one scar.”

“And your nose?”

“It is straight as before—no, straighter.”

Sam’uel grunted, “Hana has done excellent work again. Your nose was broken, though not for the first time, I think?”

Saw’ah shrugged, not knowing of any such injury.

“Perhaps when you were a baby then,” Sam’uel said, when no response was forthcoming. “But it does not matter now. You are healed and with the proper diet and plenty of fresh air and exercise, you will grow into a fine, healthy man.”

“What am I going to do?” Saw’ah asked.

“What do you wish to do?”

“I want to fight,” Saw’ah said bluntly.

“It’s a good thing Hana isn’t here to hear you say that. She would box your ears for threatening to undo all her hard work,” Sam’uel said with a laugh.

Saw’ah unused to gentle conversation and humour, took offense at the laugh. He stood very still, his face red with anger. “Why are you laughing?” he yelled.

Shocked by the sudden outburst, Sam’uel stopped his laughter. A serious look settled on his face and he said, “Little one, much has happened to you that you did not deserve. Your life has been harsh. But you must learn to control your temper if you are serious about being a warrior. You cannot hold a weapon in your hand while there is unchecked rage in your heart or you will kill the innocents.”

“Oh, and how would you know, blind man?”

Sam’uel stood up stiffly and said, “I know more than you think, young fool. Now, get some rest. We leave early in the morning and there is a long journey ahead of us.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see,” was the enigmatic response.

End of Part I…