Year: 990 Post Kerdallus, 120 Pre adventus
Ilia trudged across a dirt street frozen almost solid. Despite the bustle of Gretta, the fifteen year old could barely hear anything, for he’d not eaten in days and had been searching for a place to stay all night and most of that day. Hunger addled, he tried his best to walk forward despite the manacles, knowing that there would be little else to do in Gretta for an abandoned slave. As Ilia slipped on a stretch of ice and landed painfully on his face, no one paid him any attention. The sack he wore did little to prevent a chill from seeping into him, and as people stepped on the sidewalk lining that road of frozen mud and snow, he was sure some giggled at him. Snow fell onto his shorn head, and ice particles bit into the boy’s elbows as he tried to get up and failed, the stink of road and grime filling his nose. His old master, after losing far too many hands of card and drinking more ale than anyone else at the tavern, had ended up wagering Ilia. That bet was also lost, but the short merchant who’d won him wanted little do with the boy, for he was but a sickly mouth to feed. It had, perhaps, felt far more amusing to cut him loose and imagine the starving slave’s death. The boy would never know if the man had even watched him leave.
Ilia struggled to get up, knowing that he was liable to be trampled otherwise, but it was no use. He hadn’t been fed properly ever since Alexa died and her bastard of a husband sold Ilia to pay off some debt or the other. For the past seven years, there had been no strength in the slave, nor trust, nor hope. It all culminated in that one moment, as he lay face down on the snow, letting cold seep through him. Ilia closed his eyes, sighing in despair as he listened to passersby stomp about to either side of him loudly. His weak hand clutched at something cold and cylinder like, but he knew a piece of ice wasn’t going to be helpful in his situation. A foot stepped on his shoulder painfully as a lady laughed, but the pale slave didn’t even have the strength to cry out. She hadn’t done it on purpose, he knew. He wasn’t worth the effort needed to go out of her way and step on him. None of Gretta’s slaves were.
Slowly a rumble started, coming from the side, up the white and brown road set against the grey uncaring sky. The boy managed to turn his head to the side and look, seeing buildings in the distance, made only for the rich of this glorious town. Ilia also saw the object emitting that low rumble. His mouth began to chatter, and a chill of fear mixed in with the one brought by winter’s cold.
The sound came from a flattener, a slave-pushed wagon used in the riverside city of Gretta to maintain roads on Sepdays. This contraption sported a large stone rolling pin, which was designed to make sure the city’s roads remained bump free by pressing everything flat. Dirt, snow, and all manner of filth would be rolled over with a crunch, leaving the roads more pleasing to travelers.
A whip wielding slave driver walked next to the flattener, making sure that the wagon moved without hindrance. The slave boy had the terrible luck of being directly on this flattener’s path and knew that like the noble girl, it would not move around him. If he rolled away by some miracle, the slave driver would deal with him.
All about, commoners and nobles strode, some walking slaves on leashes, others chatting with their friends as they went from shop to shop. None looked at Ilia, for they were too busy with their own lives, and this was the more lavish district of Gretta. Ilia kept his eyes on the contraption, watching its grey stone roll as slaves pushed. Only one of the slaves had an inkling of pity in him, barely visible through the wagon’s pieces behind which he stood. He mouthed a silent apology, but even that man pushed. It wasn’t Sepday, Ilia thought slowly.
As the flattener made its way slowly towards him, Ilia tried to plead silently with the slave driver walking alongside it, but the man’s blue eyes only showed boredom. The man looked away, glancing at a pretty girl, perhaps. Flattener incidents weren’t particularly rare, although fallen slaves were, more often than not, trampled to death by passersby before the weekly rounds. Either that, or they froze.
The rumble came closer, and Ilia’s two pronged chill deepened. He could almost see the individual flecks of darker grey on the stone wheel as it made its way towards his certain death. The boy could barely bring himself to feel anything about the loss, so he closed his eyes and waited, determined at least not to wet himself before being crushed and made part of the road.
Suddenly, there was a jerk and a hand clamped around his neck in a vicelike grip. Ilia was hoisted off the ground and the next thing he knew, he fell to the snow-covered dirt on the sidewalk, where people immediately began to react to him in distaste. “It’s blocking the road,” whined a young lady before striking him across the face with a frilled umbrella. Ilia was unable to move from her path, but avoided looking the girl in the eye. After a second of waiting, she moved around him, but the stunned slave hardly noticed, for he still looked at the wagon in shock, not quite certain what had happened. It moved on, rumbling as it rolled and crushed the snow with an occasional crack from larger clumps. One of the slaves pushing it, an almost naked man with long hair, looked back for but an instant, and Ilia saw life in the muscular man’s glad expression as the flattener headed down the road.
The slave driver, however, sighed and left his place by the wagon, walking as crisp as the winter gale back towards Ilia. He addressed a dirty looking old man, who stood right next to the slave and appeared to be the one who’d moved him. “Is this yours?” he asked in an imperious manner. Ilia looked up at the man. The slave driver’s mustache flickered and he adjusted one of the double rows of buttons on his impressive red uniform of coat and thick leggings. His black boots struck one another, and he puffed his chest out, almost out of habit. The coiled whip in his hand almost pointed at the slave of its own accord.
The old tall man chuckled. He wore his hair grey and curly, perhaps greasy as well. One of his fingers went to scratch at his face, showing off fingerless gloves of dirty brown. “Nei, he ain’t,” he answered, and Ilia marveled at his accent, which seemed to heavily favor the letter “I”. He did not know of anyone in the continent of Jerr who spoke in that way. The old man turned to the slave, and Ilia noticed that his face was pockmarked, or perhaps laden with many small scars running along his face in strange patterns. His eyes were as grey as his stubble, and he wore a strange hat of grey threads, with a dome-like top and a short brim. Unlike the rest of his grimy multi-layered clothes and coat, the hat was spotless.
“Ah… I guess he’s an escapee, then,” remarked the slave driver, looking annoyed. “He’ll hang, I reckon.” The possibility didn’t seem to thrill him. Ilia could understand. Hanging an escaped slave was a task laced with costs. When the owner can’t be found, these costs must come from the city, and officials didn’t like wasting money. That was why the guard would have let Ilia die by flattener. “Such a waste.”
“Looks like you like paperwork, friend. Would take a few hours, surely.” That seemed to give the slave driver pause, and he eyed the sun. “Why take him to authorities when you can walk away? Children like to pley on days such as these,” whispered the old man, as if sharing a joke with the slave driver. Ilia didn’t understand the man’s meaning, but the uniformed slave driver’s expression changed. “Leave him with me, and we will bith be heppy men, surely.”
“Well, I would like to see my Dan and Anna early tonight. The little one has come down with a cold,” he said ruefully, watching the flattener go on ahead of him without concern. Slaves learn obedience in Gretta, for they were safer with a cruel master than in the slums or even worse, the frozen grasslands beyond the walls.
The mustached man, despite his orderly uniform, didn’t take much convincing, and within a few minutes he was on his way, after taking out a blue wand and rapping Ilia’s manacles with it. They sprung open instantly, for public slaver wands were much like a master key for chains. The slaver left, leaving Ilia with what he presumed to be his new master, and they looked at one another for an instant before the boy tried to prostrate himself in respect. The old man picked him up and carried him a few steps into a smoky alleyway, across from a dripping pipe and a stench Ilia did not wish to recognize. “Wait here,” he chuckled before Ilia could thank him, and walked away.
The slave boy shivered, for the alley was off to the side and away from the bustle and citizens, but that also meant it was a dangerous place to be so vulnerable in. Even in the noble part of town, alleys and shadows were festering melting pots for depravity, and the cutthroats of Gretta needed no excuse to slit someone’s throat: ears were always worth an elt or two. Furthermore, the sack Ilia was dressed in did little to protect him from the cold, and he barely had the strength to stay awake as is.
He gazed to the side, away from the bustle. To Ilia’s left, the boy could see a small spider’s web. He was close enough that his breath caused the thing to shake, and could see the arachnid’s individual feet move in a hypnotic manner. A fly struggled within the web as water dripped from a roof of on the other side of the alley. Despite the fly sitting helpless, the spider did not move in for the kill. Instead it danced around its prey, as if celebrating. Still the water plopped, counting down the seconds until the insect died. Beyond this view, Ilia saw children playing some sort of chasing game whilst chanting a song unfamiliar to him:
“Fear the spider’s mark,
On a hand as old as bark
He’ll put you in his web
In certain doom and dark
Old man spider!
Fear the spider’s lies
To him there’s no surprise
Sometimes he does us good
Others you’ll be his food
Old man spider!”
And so the children continued as they played, singing a blood curdling tale about an eldritch manipulator of fate’s very threads. This being knew everything that could possibly happen and wove lies like nooses around unsuspecting necks, bringing kindness or chaos as he liked. Ilia listened in horror, for although the slaves had always spoken of dire things, he’d never heard of that particular evil, “Old Man Spider”. He tried to move away from the web near his face, but the slave lacked the strength.
Ilia wondered if the man had left him for dead, but just then the short brimmed grey hat popped back into view from around the corner, along with its owner, who held a small steaming bag in his hand. A mouthwatering scent came with him, mingling with the alley’s stenchy horrors, and before Ilia dared hope, the old man smiled, showing many broken teeth. He removed a freshly baked bun from within the bag, breaking it to reveal meat stuffing, and fed Ilia slowly while the boy cried in gratitude. Just a few minutes earlier, he’d thought doom upon him. The boy could hardly believe his luck in meeting the strange scarred man.
“Heven’t eaten this well in a while?” the old man asked with a grin, leaning in close. His breath smelled horrible, but Ilia didn’t care.
“Never,” he sobbed, and the man gasped. Even Alexa, his mother, had never been able to feed him meat unless it came from a rat.
“Oh, you peor, poor boy!” He patted Ilia’s scalp softly, feeding him delicious morsels. “Whet about your parents?” he asked with real concern. His sleeve slipped due to his motion, but the man pulled it back up with his other hand, putting the food down on the filth momentarily.
“My mother tried her best,” the boy explained, “but my dad was a b-bastard. When she died, he sold me gambling.” Such men were the scourge of Gretta, and they were what fuelled its slums with willing victims. “This city is evil,” he whispered. “Especially to us slaves. We’re the worthless dregs of the earth, and could die at any moment. More expendable than cattle, we are, and used for far less. Nobody cares about those like me, master, so why did yo-“
“Oh, den’t call me mester, child,” interrupted the man gently. Even with his accent, his voice rang soft and low with sympathy. Despite the many marks on his face, Ilia could tell this man had been handsome once, and he could see a hint of that old grace in the kindness of his expression. “I’m Blik edo, and we are equels. I’ll take care of you for a while. I saw the petential in you, that’s why I saved you.”
“Bleg Ehdu?” repeated Illia uncertainly. The man’s accent was quite difficult to understand. What potential did he speak of?
“No it’s- oh never mind. Ye can call me Bleg or… Dad? I’m old enough for it.” The man’s grin stood proud from ear to ear.
Illia struggled, but his throat became dry each time he tried to call Bleg “dad. It felt too like great a sign of trust.
Bleg continued to feed him slowly until the boy was full. When that was over, he left again, then came back with a bag of items. The old man handed Ilia some nice warm clothes, sturdy and dark brown, and then produced a small knife. Its wooden handle led to a blade just a hint longer than the boy’s index finger. When Bleg handed the thing over, Ilia gasped, for slaves never carried weapons. It was an ironclad rule of Gretta, for slaves were beasts of labor and had no need for protection.
“Naibody needs to know,” Bleg said, nudging the boy with an elbow whilst grinning. “The clothes hide the slave tattoos on those chicken legs of yers. Anybody sees, you lek like a normal, upstanding citizen. Gretta ain’t the best, but a commoner can be happy here if he finds clean work. I need to catch a ferry downriver to Xera for business, but here’s some money.” He handed the shocked boy, who’d recovered enough strength to stand, a pouch filled with coins. Ilia didn’t even know how many elts there was within it, but he knew there was more than he’d ever imagined having. “You can go to the fourth street right heading from there.” He pointed along the alley, beyond where the children played and sang dark things. “There’s an inn called Drjery. Tell them Bleg sent you and they’ll do something about the scar for good.” Bleg put a hand on Ilia’s shoulder then. “Well, good luck to you, Ilia, I’m glad to have met you.” He turned to leave, slowly, and Ilia felt his heart clench.
“W-wait!” cried the boy, voice still a little hoarse. His mind was clearer, and he could feel some strength returning, but he’d been a slave for a long time, and too much had happened in a short while. The thought of being alone terrified him. Morever, realized Ilia with shock, the old man with the grey short brimmed hat was perhaps the kindest person he’d ever met. He’d saved him, fed him, and even gave him the means to escape slavery. He repeated Bleg’s instructions in his mind, over and over, but it wasn’t enough. “Can we walk together to the river? Please? Just till there, and then we’ll go separate ways.”
Bleg’s eyes softened. “Why not?” He seemed to understand Ilia’s need. “But keep the pouch with you, alright? Den’t let anyone take it. You’ll need it to build a better life, and I want to see you heppy.” The boy nodded, and so they walked west together. It was difficult for Ilia to stride next to the old man, and he kept his eyes lowered by force of habit as they made their way through the bustle and around shouting vendors endorsing their wares. Costumers poor and rich went into shops selling clothes, sweets, and even hot beverages, as advertised by the color of their doorways. Green doorways meant candy and hot cacao, the slave knew. He’d memorized the fact, even though he’d never had the chance to try sweets. Soon, maybe.
Icy wind howled, but Ilia’s clothes were sturdy, although hardly noble fur. “Thank you for saving me, Bleg,” he whispered, and the man’s hand clamped over his wrist.
“Keep your eyes high, Illia,” the man replied fiercely, voice low. “You are not inferior. I saw potential in you, as I see in everyone. Every life is special, and though I must leave, I promise you’ll make a good man. I can feel it, my friend. You are incredible.”
“Da… Bleg, alright.” The boy’s jaw hardened at that. The man’s words filled him with something. Maybe he wasn’t worthless after all. His eyes strayed to the green doors once more, where a mustached man advertised some steaming cups of hot cacao.
Out of nowhere, Bleg grabbed Ilia’s wrist once more and out of nowhere, dragged him towards the man. The slave kept his eyes down, stunned. His newfound friend bought them a mug each, paid the man, then handed Ilia one. The boy’s hand shook as he took the almost searing clay cup, and although the mustached vendor said nothing, he smiled as the two walked away. Ilia stared in disbelief at the warm, glossy black liquid. It was as bottomless as his astonishment. “Drink, Ilia,” instructed the Bleg, and the boy did as they walked towards the block. Just when he thought that his life couldn’t get better, something even more incredible happened.
The murmur and steps of the crowd around them seemed to resolve into music as sweet, slightly bitter liquid met with the boy’s tongue, sending the world into a jig. The cold flew away on wings of taste and happiness, and through it all, the old man scratched at his grey stubble, fixing Ilia with a kind gaze. When his cup was drained, Bleg offered his own to the boy, silently.
“That’s… for you,” murmured the newly happy boy, but the old man only chuckled, keeping his hand outstretched until Ilia took the second cup and drained it, leaving the waste on a low wall as they walked. “Thank you,” Ilia said. “You have no idea how that felt. This is the happiest day of my life. Thank you so much.” The boy meant it. Thanks did not do the situation justice.
“I’m sure I den’t know how it felt,” laughed the old man. “As long as yer happy, that’s good enough fer me! Even makes my loins feel better.”
“Your, oh, what?” Ilia was not entirely certain about this shift in tone.
“Ah, but my loins hurt,” complained Bleg, then chuckled. “I bed this vixen a few months back, and think she gave me something. Ugly as sin, with hair like frost, and warts covered her fat nose. Boring in the sack, too!”
“Well, why did you do it?” Ilia thought the man’s words weren’t the most considerate, but he could understand. Bleg was the nicest person he’d ever met, and so if even he said such things about the woman, Ilia reckoned they had to be true.
“Using each other, we were. She wented to get back at her husband. He beats her for being unable to have children, you see, and so she thought her boons too good for him. I wanted release and a place to sleep that night. I have a soft spot for gambling. Lost all my money, and couldn’t get more till the morning. Inns don’t let you in for free!” he laughed at that, long and hard, and Ilia chuckled with him as they passed through a smoky area. These were not uncommon in Gretta, where finding water to bathe in could be a struggle at times, but they were uncomfortable all the same. A hotwater shop, depending on where it sat, could ruin things for an entire neighborhood. Still they walked closer to the river, where a parting seemed inevitable.
Ilia wondered if it would be at all possible to travel with Bleg instead of going to his friends at Drjery. Even as a slave, he didn’t think life with this man would be bad. He began to imagine cooking with him, sleeping in his own room, and maybe even riding a horse one day. His father had never taught him that. The gambling bothered Ilia, for that was exactly how he’d been abandoned by his old master, but he was sure Bleg wasn’t that bad. Bleg would be kind and care for him. In turn, Ilia would be willing to do anything, for he’d not felt the touch of love in many years.
An hour later, they stood by the riverside. Its tumbling roar was overshadowed by the beats in Ilia’s heart. He didn’t want to leave Bleg. Even as a slave, he’d never been left to fend for himself. The old, curly haired, hat wearing man didn’t say anything as they stood in a fast moving line, and it moved closer until it was Bleg’s turn to pay and get into the cheap looking ferry, which would take him south to Xera. “My boy,” the grey eyed man said in sympathy, and Ilia’s heart almost broke, knowing he was about to be dismissed. He could beg, though. Ilia was good at that. If he begged the kind man, maybe he would be allowed to accompany him, even as a servant. He needed someone to love him like this man did. They waited as the line between them and the ferry thinned. There a short wooden fence stood, more to mark off the area than anything else. A short road ran from there to the ferry, which sat atop the river.
A burly employee stood between them and the ferry, and the old man paid his fare before passing through. There, halfway across the way to the ferry, he turned to Ilia with a tender expression.
“Bleg,” Ilia began, knowing that he loved the old, grey haired, gap toothed man and needed to stay with him. The strangeness of his presence was calming and exciting all at once. “It’s such a cruel world. Without you, I don’t know what to-“
“You!” someone shrieked, cutting Ilia off. He turned and saw a massive woman, grey haired and with a face full of warts. She had been talking to a fish monger, but after screaming, she grabbed the man’s cleaver and came towards them, fury in her eyes. “I’m with child thanks to you, you bastard!” she screeched, and Ilia looked from her to Bleg, who was standing behind him but still just shy of the ferry. The boy was between them, and saw recognition enter the man’s grey eyes.
Understanding dawned on Ilia. This was the terrible woman who’d made Bleg ill. She was going to kill his savior. If he let her, the reason for his happiness was going to disappear like a popped bubble. He couldn’t let that happen, no matter what.
Ilia’s mind stopped in that instant, and he felt something in his pocket, one gift from his hero, the only man who’d ever cared about him. In that moment, even Alexa didn’t matter. He needed to save Bleg.
Without even meaning to, he whispered, “Dad, no!” and intercepted the charging woman, who had looked like she was going right for him. The slave pulled the knife out and stabbed the woman in the throat multiple times, letting her gargle in her own blood and dull astonishment. As they wrestled shortly, she slipped on the snow and fell on top of the boy, cleaver wedged between them. It bit deeply into his chest.
Surprisingly, the man who’d been working in line screamed, “Ersi!” and jumped to separate them. It was too late: Both Ilia and the woman had been wounded too badly, and lay dying on the cold snowy dirt. Their blood mingled and painted the snow red as the employee tried to save the ugly woman. Ilia’s shin had become exposed in the scuffle, and he heard someone murmur, “It’s a runaway slave,” causing some sort of commotion. Perhaps they saw his mark. He didn’t care. Bleg was safe. He was happy with that.
With difficulty, the boy flipped onto his back, gazing at the grey sky as people stared at him angrily, and then he turned to his left, worried that he’d disappointed his friend. Bleg had tried so hard to save him. Don’t look, he begged silently. Ilia had been worthless all along, but the old man had made him happy, saved him, cared for him. Even gasping with pain, the boy could still taste hot chocolate on his lips. The old man’s pure existence made all that possible, and Ilia just wanted happiness for him.
He didn’t want Bleg to look and be sad.
Bleg looked, of course, for he’d been alerted by the woman’s shout and had seen her charge. As blood trickled down his sliced chest and people spat at him for being a slave with a knife, Ilia focused on Bleg Idu.
The old man in the filthy clothes chuckled and righted his grey hat, no sympathy apparent on his eyes. As he did, his left sleeve fell once more, and Ilia saw a strange tattoo on his forearm. The old man turned, putting a pouch of coin into his pocket, and stepped onto the ferry, disappearing into the crowd without another glance. The boy couldn’t feel his own pouch of elts within his pocket, he must have dropped it.
Ilia’s mind, hazy as it was due to the loss of blood, didn’t really understand. His last thoughts were befuddled and, perhaps, a little hurt.
The old man found a nice spot for him on the ferry, glad to be away from filthy Gretta. He patted his coin pouch, then noticed a man who appeared to be kneeling before him, on the tired wooden planks.
“What?” he spat. The man, still kneeling with head bowed, showed the old man his fist, on which was a familiar tattoo of a spider watching a bloody battle. The man with the grey haired sighed. “Rise. You saw mine, then?”
“Yes, my god,” replied the man, who’d apparently scarred his own face quite badly. The pattern was wrong, however. “My name is Vlad. Do you require anything of me? Your pleasure is my purpose.”
“No, do what you want. I had my fun.”
“The boy?” The old man glared him, and Vlad hastily looked down. “Apologies, my god. What would you like me to call you?”
“Black widow is fine today. Yes, the boy, to answer your question. Emissaries from Xera and Bilkumsheq were passing by a certain road later. If they’d seen him flattened there, slavery would have been abolished in a year, or at least changed to a better system like in Regalia. This way, with a slave impregnating and then murdering a poor woman? It’ll get even worse. The woman, well. We used each other.” The ancient being chuckled to himself at that, finding a crate to sit on. Then he noticed the confused look on Vlad’s face, and waved at the man.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, remembering how his words sound to everyone else because of the old spider bites on his tongue added to his own accent. “Prostrate yourself for me or something. Oh, and get me some food.”
“Yes, lord Bleg.” Vlad scurried away like the scum he was, and Old Man Spider began to sing a little tune to himself.
“Fear the spider’s mark,
On a hand as old as bark
He’ll put you in his web
In certain doom and dark
Old man spider!
Fear the spider’s stare
The mind that is his lair
He’ll laugh and he’ll look kind
But lead to our demise
Old man spider!”