The air was stifling with the hot breath of slaves. A dozen women were slumped against the far wall. No noise, save for the clinking of the shackles as one of the women shifted. No light, save for the small amount that trickled beneath the door. Just the darkness and the smothering air.
Botia shut her eyes against the darkness. She was flexing her hand, forcing her nails against her palm. She had started this habit as a way of keeping some strength in her hands, but now all it did was serve to remind her how badly she needed to cut her fingernails. She chuckled noiselessly. Yes, that was her biggest problem right now.
There had been a new girl added yesterday. Botia had seen the lightness of her hair, and been hopeful. But when Botia tried asked her what her name was, the new girl had given her such a look of bovine incomprehension that Botia almost wept. It had been for weeks since anyone had said anything understandable.
Her wrist was beginning to ache, so she took a break from making fists. She massaged her feet instead. For four weeks she had been marched around the hard-baked steppes. Four weeks barefoot. And had perfectly good shoes, but they took them. They didn't need any shoes. Assholes. By now, most of the blisters had turned to callouses. The soles of her feet were permanently stained brown. Botia had tried washing them with her spit until her mouth ran dry, but still the brown color remained.
At this rate, she would have hooves by next spring.
Sounds came from the door. There was no lock, she knew, just a blunt wooden spike that held the door closed. As the peg was being pulled out, Botia slouched lower against the wall and looked at the tops of the feet behind the door. Around the room, the other women were adopting the same bad posture. Pity the spines of slaves.
The door opened, and the pig-slaver eased himself into the room. He was carrying a rope. A heavy, slurred voice behind him said some words in the barbaric language, and the slaver moved forward. She watched his feet. He was walking towards her. The slaver shouted a stream of guttural baby talk at her. He wanted her to stand up.
When she stood up, she towered over her captor. Poro was a small man carrying a rope. Botia could look right down on his bald pate. She was close enough to spit on it, in fact. In a way, it was nice to know that she could still get angry. Botia felt that it made her more human somehow, and reassured her that she wasn't meant to be a slave. Unlike her cellmates.
"Good morning, Poro," she said. She noticed that his stink wasn't filling the room today, and so she added, "You smell less like a pig today than usual."
If Poro understood gospeltongue, he had never shown it. But he slapped her anyway. Botia wondered if the man walked on his hands--they felt as rough as her feet.
Poro looked over his shoulder at the open door. He muttered something, then looked back at Botia. He must not have liked what he saw, because he grabbed her shoulder and shoved her around so that she was facing her fellow slaves. His rough sausage fingers reached up and began tying the rope to her neck. Against the raw skin of her neck, the rope hurt more than the slap.
Her swarthy fellow slaves were all staring at her. Staring wasn't considered rude here. Everyone stared all the time. The people in the marketplace were just walls of eye-whites and gibberish.
Poro jerked her around again, and then he was leading her up the short flight of stairs into the hallway. The stone was cold against her naked feet. They passed a pair of hirsute water-carriers and a stony-faced crossbowman. When they got to the courtyard, there was a giant worm in the center of it. It was looking at her with obvious expectation.
Botia began to scream.
She had heard of them, of course. Who hadn't heard of how the Fangolians fed their prisoners to the carnivorous worms that they worshiped? The worms were supposed to enjoy eating the head the most.
Poro whirled around and raised his hand back, cocking it for another slap. Botia never gave him a chance. Her knee caught him right in the groin, so hard it hurt her knee. The slaver didn't say anything, but his eyes opened wide and he doubled over fast enough for a thin string of drool to fly from his mouth.
And then Botia was sprinting, her feet slapping against the tiles. The rope slid behind her, like a serpent in pursuit.
She had thought she had resigned herself to dying. Among the ghost-eyed women in that smothering room, she had starting to believe that she might as well be dead. But she had never figured on any giant worms.
In her mind, she dashed down the darkened hallways. She knew where they kept the horses, and they always kept one saddled for emergencies. She jumped on the horse and tore out of the stables. She stole water skins from the well, and rode until morning, when she would be back in Talamasca. She sold the horse, and with the money, she bought shoes and passage on a ship back to Truaga. . .
But then her collar became the iron grip of a giant, and she was thrown to the ground by her neck. Behind her, a hawk-nosed slaver took his foot off the tail end of the rope. Botia watched the pair of black boots jog over to her, and felt his knee pressing in the small of her back as he pinned her forearms between her shoulder blades and hauled her to her feet. She didn't resist. The skin of her neck was oozing blood, and she was having trouble breathing.
The worm was still in the center of the courtyard, but there was no sign of Poro. She hoped he was badly hurt.
Up close, she could see that it was more like a caterpillar, really. It was about fifteen feet long, but a good third of its body was lifted upright. It was fat, too. It would take two men to get their arms around it. Most of it was a dusty green color, with some white and black markings along the body. Its head was darker tones of brown and purple, like someone had upended a barrel of wine atop it. Its face was glossy and shelled, like a turtle's carapace. Things like arms came out of its body near the head, each terminating in a fat pair of yellow thumbs. It moved its head slowly, swiveling to look from her to the slaver. Its mandibles were heavy, crushing crenelations. Something that you would use to crack walnuts. Or bones. Botia tried to imagine the thick mandibles coming down around her head. It wasn't hard.
And then the caterpillar spoke. It spoke the language of the slavers. The stony mandibles of its face were haltingly opening and closing, and some unseen organ deeper inside was speaking with the same deep, slurring voice that she had heard before she was brought out of her cell. It was saying something to Hawknose. Hawknose answered. Apologetically, she thought.
Poro entered the courtyard. The skin of his face glistened with sweat, and one of his hands was shoved down his pants, holding something against his groin. He was shouting more gibberish. He held a sword in his other hand.
The caterpillar answered him in that same underwater basso. Poro yelled some more. Hawknose reached over and backhanded her hard enough to see stars.
It really wasn't necessary. Botia was too hurt, too shocked, to attempt anything like another escape. Hawknose adeptly removed her collar and used one end of the rope to tie her hands together behind her back. Then he picked her up and tossed her atop the caterpillar.
Botia was surprised at how soft the thing was. Its skin was as soft as a baby's, and warm, too. She ran her hand along its back and then rubbed her fingertips together. It only *felt* powdery. It was like lying on a pillow, she decided. The caterpillar said something to Hawknose, who grunted and handed the end of the rope to his monstrous customer before moving away.
She hadn't noticed it before, but the worm was wearing a broad piece of leather near its neck with pouches on it. Poro walked around the caterpillar to brandish his club in front of her. He yelled something at her. She closed her eyes and tried to relax. After all, the caterpillar was the only one here who hadn't hit her yet.
Hawknose came back with a blanket and, after some more gibberish from the caterpillar, helped her to sit up and wrap it around herself. Beneath her, the silken wormflesh began to buck and writhe, and Botia rode the caterpillar out into the sea-blown streets of Talakesh.