The wind rattled at the wooden door barring Kaheran's only way out of the stone cell. Tendrils of icy air slunk between the planks to nip at his bare skin, rousing him from his stupor. He huddled behind the board hanging around his neck, searching for any form of shelter. The sale pits hadn't been a part of his life before now and, for the first time ever, he was glad his previous owner had sold him via private arrangement.
He licked his cracked lips. How long had he been locked in here? Several hours, certainly. Long enough for dawn? Hard to be certain when the light only changed with the guards as they marched back and forwards. Kaheran tentatively sniffed the air. Over the stench of the sale pit's collective bodily fluids there was a certain… morning tang.
He briefly considered peeking through the gaps in the door and instead scrunched further into his little corner. Whatever he saw wouldn't be worth the risk of having his head accidently caved in if they chose to collect him. Even shut away in this dark little portion of the world, he knew he wasn't alone down here. The desperate wails of the sick and the terrified were well suited to permeating any barrier beyond the magical.
Kaheran cocked his head, gritting his teeth against the stinging in his right ear. Most of the cries sounded like children. That didn't bode well for his chances. Buyers were always more willing to choose the young and inexperienced over the older and possibly rebellious.
Silence fell over the cells. He tipped his head to the other side, straining to hear the reason for the sudden absence of sound. The heavy tread of armoured boots coming down the corridor reached his ears. It'd been some time since the last guard came near this section. It really is morning. His fate was squarely in the gods' hands now. And he had no reason to believe they would be any more merciful to him now than they'd been before.
The footsteps came to a halt on the other side of the door. Torchlight glittered through the cracks. His eyes watering, Kaheran turned from the sudden assault of brightness.
There came the dreadful clatter of keys, followed by the creak of his lock. He shuffled onto his knees. They were here for him? Already? He couldn't be before the children. They only put the ones people rarely wanted, the infirm and the elderly, before them. He'd be the first to admit his current condition wasn't the best state to put before a buyer, but it was nothing a bandage and a few decent meals couldn't fix. He wasn't beyond help.
His cell door swung open, bouncing off the wall. A figure stood in the opening, clearly sporting a sword and armoured heavily enough to face a worthy opponent rather than a naked, half-starved slave.
The man spat into the cell, the glob landing inches from Kaheran's knees. "On your feet, you pointy-eared cur."
He sneered, knowing the expression was lost beneath his unkempt hair. Such emphasis on the guard's part was hardly needed. Although truly, only one ear now bore the very feature this man derided him for, the other having been lost to the Elder's knife several days ago. Wobbling to his feet, Kaheran shuddered as the chill air nibbled at the parts of his flesh it had previously missed.
The guard stepped back and indicated down the corridor with a wave of his torch. His other hand fell to his sword hilt. "Move it."
Shuffling forward, he quietly obeyed the man. The rope securing the board around his neck bit into his skin with each step. He didn't dare try to steady it, for if the man's suspicious attitude was any judge, Kaheran would likely be accused of bearing a weapon. Death was not on his agenda. Not today. Not until he saw what fate the gods handed him.
They passed cell door after cell door. A large percent of them closed. Between the slap of his feet and the measured tramp of the guard's boots, he caught the panicked scuffle of bodies and the muffled whimpers of children. There were too many young voices for this to be a normal collection of slaves. It smelt of a battle gone right for the wrong people.
You poor sods. He'd met a few not born to this way of life back at the orchard once. They had been there one day, and then gone the next. 'To the mines', the older slaves would whisper. That's where they sent those who wouldn't conform. A slave was lucky to leave there on the wagons with the rest of the refuse.
How many of these children would wind up there? How many would even make it through to adulthood? Certainly not the amount their buyers expected.
They rounded a corner and the corridor broadened, allowing enough room for a throng to pass through. The floor gained a subtle upward incline. He lifted his head. The gates leading to the display arena loomed ever nearer. Pale, morning light shone through their wide maw.
A man stood to one side, the arena's assigned Dispenser. He'd heard of their like before, the Elder described them as slaves and ministers of the empire, dealing equally in slaves and justice. It was said that no transition passed in the empire without their knowledge.
The Dispenser turned as they neared. Against a backdrop of light, the large angular ears framing his otherwise narrow face were unmistakable. Closer still and he caught the subtle purple gleam of the man's collar. Somewhere upon the ring of metal was the stamp of the man's owner. "Who do we have here?"
Kaheran took the question as an invitation to clasp the board hanging around his neck without fear of being run through by the guard at his back. A sigh slipped through his lips as the rope's bite lessened.
The man peered at the board, then frowned and withdrew a pair of glasses from within the folds of his shirt before rifling through his stack of papers. Each one no doubt detailing all the information on the slaves set to be sold today. "Let's see now… ah." He separated one from the stack and adjusted his glasses. "Elven…" The man gingerly lifted Kaheran's hair, grimacing. "Sold once… good. Age…" He glanced up from the paper, humming to himself. "I suppose. Skills are… oh dear."
Manual labour. The most basic training anyone could have. It wrote him off as all but worthless. Those who worked the fields and orchards generally did so until they physically couldn't and died. Those unfortunate enough to earn their master's favour were released without a care as to how they'd get by. Only troublemakers got resold. "Would it help if I said I could do sums?"
The Dispenser's lips twisted into a thin smile. "Still got your tongue, I see."
Kaheran shrugged. He knew being capable of speech was a mixed blessing. His master had never complained. But then, he'd never seen any of the family who supposedly owned him. Like everyone else up in the orchard, all his orders came from the Elder and he was certainly a man who objected to Kaheran's mouth.
The bespeckled man sighed and lowered his bundle of papers. "Turn around and let's see what redeeming features you do have."
He obeyed, gritting his teeth as the man hummed and clicked his tongue. Was it not bad enough that the Elder stripped him of his—or rather, their master's—clothes? He knew what they saw, could see it on their faces.
Gaunt, scarred and filthy. That's what this man thought, what they all thought. Even if he'd been trained by the most skilled scribes in the land, his appearance alone would make him a hard sell.
"Go through." The Dispenser indicated the open gates. "And try to look a little livelier, lad, or you'll wind up in the mines."
Won't get much for him. The words clanged about his head, a memory of the guard's warning to the Elder when they'd first arrived. He had laughed then, much to the Elder's disgust and the guards' surprise. After everything he'd suffered under the Elder's supposed care, it would serve the man right if he fetched little more than a copper for their master. But the mines?
Please, he hurriedly begged to whoever would hear him, prepared to throw himself into full devotion of that deity. Don't let them send me to the mines.
"Quickly now, lad."Swallowing the sudden welling of bile and dread clogging his throat, Kaheran stepped into the lit area beyond the gates.