This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy, 2009.
Narrative of a Beast’s Life
An account of my family and village – our circumstances – childhood pastimes – Bozni’s fate – Adrato’s lesson
Like many of my fellow Beasts, I was born to freedom, in a small village named Dekalion, the confluence of five centaur herds. The youngest of seven, I was a favorite of my family, not just of my parents and siblings, but of my aunts, uncles, and cousins as well. They named me Fino, which means “Quickwitted” in my milk tongue, and I grew up in an atmosphere of love and encouragement that any Human child might envy.
Since many have asked me of that initial society, I will set down what I remember of life there. Our village resided in the shade of sandstone cliffs, which overlooked plains of acacia trees and brambles. My people hunted, and the men had farms of cassava and gourds, corn and plantains.
The village was located three or four days inland from the sea, and only a scant number of our women went to trade on the coast or with other neighboring settlements. Only bold women, past their first childbearing and used to fighting, because slavers were common. The traders traveled in groups of five or six, armed with bows and spears, and took goods: bark cloth, carved water gourds, reed baskets. They brought back bright cottons and bits of metal, and sometimes dried fish, tasting of salt and smoke and unfamiliar spices.
When I was a child, my favorite playmate was Bozni, a clever boy perhaps a year younger than myself. We played together, along with our fellows, under the watchful eye of an elderly centaur, Adrato. In the hot afternoons, he was prone to falling asleep in the shade, and we would play where we liked while he drowsed.
The town was a series of huts, woven of thorn and branches, thatched with grass. In the morning, pairs of centaurs would take clay jugs to fill them in the mud-colored river that ran near the village.
This river was not a safe place, and we children were forbidden its shores, which naturally rendered them the most desirable of playgrounds in our eyes. We learned that dangling a branch over the deeper pools might bring a grim-jawed crocodile boiling out of the water.
While leaning out over a pool with a branch one day, Bozni was snatched by such a monster. The rest of the children screamed and ran for help, but I leaped forward, trying in vain to pull him from the reptile’s maw. I took up the fallen branch and beat the creature about the head, Bozni shouting and screaming all the while.
Alas! Try as I might, the crocodile withdrew further into the water, where it spun itself sideways several times as quickly as a child’s top. Bozni thrashed past in the foaming water – I believe he perished early in those moments, but the crocodile continued to shake the corpse.
I stood horrified, staring into the reddening river, and caught a last glimpse of his ensanguined face, barely visible against the water’s rusty color. By the time Adrato came galloping up, summoned by the others, Bozni was gone.
Adrato demanded an account of what had transpired, and forbore his anger at my inability to express the horrific scene I had just witnessed. Bit by bit, he coaxed the tale from me.
At its conclusion, we stared at each other for a long moment. He took me by the shoulder and pointed a doleful finger at the river. By now, the current had washed away any stain from the glistening banks, although the dents and troughs dug in the mud by the frantic action of Bozni’s legs bore testament to the struggle.
“That is the price of disobedience,” Adrato said sternly, and shook me once or twice. His demeanor impressed me so gravely that it would not be until I was an adult that I fully realized that in some cases, the price of obedience might prove still more costly. I was free then, as I said, and a child. I did not understand many things, and so I swore I would always obey, lest I meet Bozni's fate.
My early education – anticipation of a hunt – a raid in the night by Shifters – my capture – our journey
We children were taught mathematics, which I took to with great delight and facility of mind. We learned nothing of the written word, but we were taught to calculate with cabi, which means “counting beads,” carved of ivory and strung on cords.
The arts of hunting and self-defense were also taught us. When a centaur youth came of age, he or she would kill a lion in order to receive the tattoos of adulthood along their arms and chest. As the day for my hunt came nearer, dreams of what was to happen filled all my nights. I made two spears for the purpose and Adrato promised me an iron knife for the occasion.
But a week before the ritual was to take place, a slaving clan of Shifters – who sometimes walked in two-legged form, and other times ran as hyenas – attacked us. Our traders had left that morning, and our attackers must have been watching for that signal. In the darkest hours of the night, they set fire to several huts and shouted angrily beside the windows, thrusting spears inward at the sleepers, before withdrawing.
In the confusion, amid the noise and flames, I ran in the wrong direction, fetching up against a fence and knocking myself sharply on the head. I reeled away into the darkness outside the village walls and found myself seized by rough hands, which pulled sacking down over my head, obscuring my vision and securing my arms. I kicked out, but my captors quickly secured me and I found myself trussed and thrown on a cart with several others. We tried to ascertain each others’ identities, but savage blows rained down on us with imprecations and commands for silence. The cart trundled into motion and we rumbled away.
The next few days we traveled in this manner. My companions in captivity were revealed as three other youths, ranging in age from myself, my age-mates Tsura and Kali, and an older boy named Flik. We tested our bonds, but our captors were evidently well-experienced at their brutal profession. They watered us and fed us with grain porridge, but so little that we were weakened by hunger and tormented by thirst, along with biting flies that crawled over us as we jostled along in the miserably hot sun.
Sometimes I tried to convince myself that my family would come for me, but at least a week would pass before our traders returned from their mission. They were the only ones brave enough to dare searching for us, but by the time they were set on our trail, it would be cold.
We are taken to market – I am sold to a new master – Our journey and its hardships – A garden feast – The Sphinx’s name - We come to Samophar and are taken aboard ship
We were taken to a market in a city. None of us had ever seen such a place before and there were sights and sounds and smells such as I had never witnessed. The buildings were made of clay brick, laid together so snugly that no mortar or cement was necessary. Some buildings were built on top of each other, and stairs meant for no Centaur led up and down the outside.
Here we were sold, each to separate masters. Mine fastened me in a coffle with other beings: a Sphinx of that city that had committed murder, two Djinni, and a snake-headed woman. Oxen drew the cart to which we were shackled, and chained on it was a Dragon, not a large one, but some eight feet in length. A small herd of goats marched behind us in turn, intended for the Dragon’s sustenance.
We traveled northward for three days, during which I picked up a scattering of my comrades’ languages, and they of mine. The Dragon, as it chanced, spoke the Sphinx’s tongue. As they talked back and forth, I listened and tried to make sense of what they said. I could not assemble the Dragon’s words into meaning, but they drove the Sphinx to silent tears. She wept all day and well into the night, and did not speak again for days.
I had never seen a Sphinx before and when at last she could be coaxed into speech, I gave her my name and tried to learn her own. But my companions informed me that no Sphinx speaks their name outside their own kind. I was much amazed at this strange practice, for it was the first time I realized that it was not simply places that differed from those I had known, but customs as well.
The Djinni were kindly disposed towards me, saying that I reminded them of their own child, who had been sold away from them. They tried to give me a portion of their food, but I refused it, even though it tempted me sorely. They were as hungry as I, and I had no right to deprive them. I thought it unfair that one creature should eat while another starved, even then before I had seen how bitter injustice might be.
On the second day, we came across a village that lay in ashes. Its living inhabitants were all gone, but here and there in the blackened ruins were corpses: long-armed apes and centaurs like myself. Our master allowed us to forage in the gardens, although we were kept chained together, rendering walking laborious. While much was trampled, I found some yams there and put them in a sack I found to one side, along with stalks of sugar cane, two lemons, and a handful of orange fruit that I had never seen before, sized to match my thumb tip, thin-skinned, and full of a sour savor. We roasted our pickings in the guards’ fire that night, and considered ourselves to be dining as well as royalty.
The next day we came to a seaport, which a passerby told us, in answer to our entreaties, was Samophar. Here the larger buildings were made of white stone and the streets underfoot were paved with yellow brick. Fatbellied ships rode at anchor in the harbor and we realized that our owner intended to sell us away from our homeland.
I had never seen so much water. I stared at it, imagining crocodiles beneath the glittering surface. At the docks, we were passed over to a ship’s master. I witnessed other slaves being loaded onto the ship, and saw the weeping of several families being parted.
Here a sad incident came to pass. The two Djinni were chained together and contrived to jump into the waves. The woman drowned before they could be drawn up out of the water and the husband was savagely beaten by the sailors, angry at the trouble he had afforded. Try as I might, despite the blows aimed my way, I could not force my way up the gangplank at first, but the Djinni’s blood, his cries, forced me, lest I push them to such lengths for I knew they would have no mercy.
Below decks I found myself amidst a throng of other captives, including Dog-men from the east, ghouls, several Griffins, a family of Harpies, Ogres, Unicorns, and individuals: a Catoblepas and a Rakshasa. Above decks, I could hear the roaring of the Dragon as it was chained into place and we set underway.
The voyage – We are rebuked by the Sphinx - I am given a new name – The fate of a cyclops
Brutality was a common practice of the Human crew towards the cargo. They affected to despise the Beasts they conveyed, and yet they used us venially as they desired, particularly the Ogre women. Few of the crew did not undertake such practices, either with each other or with the miserable captives in their care.
We were given a measure of gruel and water each day, which our keepers were not careful to hand out. Some bullies among us made it their practice to take the provisions of those who were sick or otherwise unable to defend what was rightfully their own. After a few such incidents, though, the Sphinx spoke to us. Those who could understand her words rendered them into other tongues and then others translated them in turn so a constant subdued whisper spread outward from her throughout the cramped hold.
She discoursed most remarkably in her deep, grave voice. She said as thinking beings we owed each other civil treatment and that it was the duty of the strong to protect the weak from the worst of our common oppression. She looked at each face in turn with her great brown eyes and some faltered under that stare.
After that, the bullies seemed abashed. From then on we kept better order among ourselves, despite the taunts and jeers of the sailors, who were angered by behavior. It was as tough it were a reproach that their captives might act more civilized than they. But we knew that without such acts, we had nothing.
Not even our names were our own. During the journey we were given new names, chosen by the Captain from a book which he carried as he walked the levels below decks, trailed by two sailors, pointing and giving each the appellation by which they were to be known from then forward.
The sound he gave me seemed strange and unrepeatable. Phil-lip. But the sailor behind him paused and said the name aloud to me and made me repeat it back until he was satisfied and moved on to the next Beast. Phillip. Resentment blazed in my chest, for it was not my name, not the name by which my parents and beloved siblings had known me. Was that not part of who I was – my very innermost nature? My name. Phil-lip.
But I did not give voice to my objections, for I had seen the example made of a resistor. A monstrous Cyclops, who was incongruously soft-spoken to the point where one must strain their ears to hear him, proved quite adamant on the subject of his name, refusing the one given him – Jeremy – and was beaten till he “should acknowledge it”, which rather proved to be the point where he fainted and pails of sea water thrown on his face failed to revive him. He died two days later.
As the days passed, the realization struck me that I was moving away from my home, and that even should I escape my servitude, I would yet find myself in a strange land, when I knew no one to help me. Despondent at the thought, I refused to eat and gradually sank into a deep melancholy. It was evident that the sailors cared not whether I lived or died, but the Captain, who had a financial investment in his piteous cargo, forced them to shift me up onto deck in the sunshine and wind. I was placed towards the aft of the ship, in a somewhat sheltered spot, with several other invalids also deemed to be in danger of being carried away by their maladies.
One of these we knew doomed. A tree spirit named Malva who faded with each mile stretching between herself and her tree. The Captain swore greatly upon discovering the nature of her malady, for the seller had deliberately not warned him. She was the sweetest of souls and it was painful to watch her skin grow dull where once it had been luminous The strands of her hair fell prey to the sea winds, which snatched them away day by day and bore them who knows where.
After a week and a half of this existence, Malva finally breathed her last. The captain lost no time disposing of the corpse overboard and I forbore to watch, lest I see the gray sharks that followed us quarreling and tearing over the body.
The ghouls pleaded to be allowed to dispose of the corpse, as they did each time some unfortunate passed away. The Captain said he did not like to cultivate their habits, and for the most part, they were denied fresh meat except for such occasions as they were able to hide someone’s death below decks.
In doing so, they did not have to hide their activities so much from the sailors, who paid us as little attention as they could, as from their fellows, most of whom objected to the thought of being disposed of in such a gruesome wise, although those entirely resigned to their fate said they did not mind being eaten by the ghouls.
Once again, Providence stepped in. Prompted by a chance fondness for my form and face, another being intervened and saved me from following Malva’s dreadful fate. The cook, Petro, was a fat man who had once worked in a racing stable. He confided in me that his great desire had been to be a jockey, and that when at the age of twelve, he had realized that his frame would outstrip a rider’s dimensions, he had run away to sea in despair.
Only Petro’s nursing me with what fresh fruit he had stored away kept me alive. He took me as his pet, and delighted in asking for stories about my village and the Beasts I had encountered in the course of my travels. He was fascinated with the equine part of my body and would groom and caress it, while avoiding that part which seemed Human to him.
I went so far as to offer him my real name, but he shook his head and insisted that I must think of myself as Phillip from now on, else I might expect to gather unnecessary punishment on myself.
He explained to me that the world was divided into Humans and Beast, and that the Gods had given Humans dominion over Beasts, which meant that such creatures could not own themselves, and only be the possession of Humans. He would have offered to buy me, he assured me, except that I was far outside his meager savings. He spoke of the highness of my price as a good thing, because it ensured that someone wealthy, who would be able to maintain me well, would be my purchaser.
The Dragon was kept at the verymost back of the ship, which was reckoned less imperiled by its flames. Most of the time its jaws were kept prisoned, but at dawn and dusk, they would release its mouth to feed it a goat from the dwindling herd and let it drink its fill of water. The diet did not suit its bowels, and by the end of the trip, the back of the ship was covered with its gelid feces, despite the sailors' best efforts to keep it scrubbed free of the substance, which burned bare skin exposed to it.
As we went north, the weather became more and more winter-like. We all found the cold and damp excruciating. Clothing and blankets were at a premium, and many traded favors or begged bits of clothing from the sailors. Petro gave me his second-best jacket, which he said he had grown too paunchy for. It hung loose on me, but I was glad of the overabundance of the fabric.
We did not sit out on the deck any more, and so I did not witness our approach to the port of Tabat. Waiting in the darkness, I strained my ears to make out what I could: the cries of gulls, echoed by the shouts of Humans, the creak of the ship’s timbers and the swish of water, the slap of waves.
When I left the ship, Petros had tears in his eyes as he waved to me, but I did not think much of him. All my worries were engaged by what was to come. Under the watchful eye of the Captain, we made our way down the gangplank that led from the ship to the dock, shivering in the bitter sea wind, uncertain of our fate.
We arrive in Tabat – the fate of the Dragon - I am sold – my new mistress – I am taken to Piper Hill
We were driven to a vast marketplace, a single roof stretched across hundreds of feet, and six raised platforms where the Beasts and each platform’s Human auctioneer stood. Inside the walls, among the press of the crowd, it was much warmer, so warm that I felt in danger of fainting. The crowd pressed on every side, and the smells were oppressive.
I saw the Sphinx and others of my fellow captives sold. Then came the Dragon, which they hauled up onto the block in chains. The great iron muzzle was clamped around its jaws so it still could not speak, but it rolled its eyes in fury and tried to flap its wings.
Alas! It had been denuded of those members, and only stumps remained, treated with cautery and tar bandages. At the time I wondered at the savagery of such a gesture and later learned it is customary with such Beasts with the power of flight, lest they come loose, since in such cases they invariably fly away as quickly as they can.
The bidding for the Dragon came fast and furious. At length it was sold and dragged away. The bidding was shorter in my case, and after a quick interchange, I was shoved in line behind my purchaser.
She was a lean woman with dark hair worn in an ornate braid wrapped around her head. Her skin was darker than my own and she was significantly shorter. She gestured at me to follow her, flanked by her guard, a shaggy-headed Minotaur who eyed me wordlessly. His arms were as big around as my chest, or so it seemed to me.
She bought another Beast, a dog-man. He and I walked in new sets of chains behind a cart heaped with produce and other goods bought in turn. I did not speak his language, nor he mine, and so we did not communicate much as we progressed along. At noon, we stopped to rest, and the woman and Minotaur ate lunch, although only drinks from a water skin were given to the dog-man and I.
We arrived at our destination by early evening. A series of white-washed buildings sat atop a cliffside overlooking a small river. The houses seemed quite grand to me at the time, but after I had lived there for some time, I came to see that it was older, and had not been well tended. The bushes in the once lavish garden were overgrown, and in places the faster-growing ones had choked back the shyer, less-assuming plants. The garden grew all manner of medicinal herbs – some out right, others hidden between tree roots or in the shadows of the crumbling rock wall. The outer walls were shaggy with peeling paint, and the gutters drooped as though unable to bear the slightest thought of rain. This was Piper Hill, my new home, which it has remained until now.
Jolietta begins my training – I am broken to harness – Brutus and Caesar – the dwarf dragons - I am sent out to work – I fall ill – I speak my feelings and am punished
I soon grew settled into life at Piper Hill. I set about learning the language as quickly as I could, stung by both Jolietta’s scorn and her lash when she did not think I was applying myself as hard as I could. Jolietta showed me how to work in tandem with another centaur that she had in her stables, named Michael.
You would think that an intelligent creature would have little trouble with the concept of the harness, but the truth is that it required strength and dexterity that had not been developed in me by all my confined days aboard the slave ship.
My physical dexterity was also hampered by my injuries. The day after we arrived at the estate, Jolietta had me tied and whipped until the blood flowed. She told me that we should begin as we meant to go on – that to disobey her would be to get whipped again.
She demanded to know if I understood her. By now I could make out what she said, for it was the same language many of the sailors had spoken. She went on to tell me my name would continue to be Phillip, as that was the name written on my papers of ownership, but that if I dissatisfied her, she was quite capable of changing my name to something much more degrading.
By way of example, she was in the process of training an oracular pig, and she called that unfortunate being “Thing” and insisted that we all do the same, although the information quickly passed among us that the pig’s birth name was Tirza.
I watched Tirza’s training in tandem with my own, and found her sullen example a warning sign of my fate should I rebel too overtly. Like most of her kind, Tirza could speak aloud, as though she were human, a clear soprano which I had the pleasure of hearing sing on several occasions. She was a good enough soul when one spoke to her outside of Jolietta’s training, but few of us dared hold such conversations, for fear of the beatings that we would be given if we were caught offering the miserable creature solace, either spoken or material.
I respected the two minotaur guards that Jolietta had with her almost constantly as she went about the estate on her daily business: Brutus and Cassius. It had been Cassius that had gone with her on her buying trip. Neither of them deigned to speak to the other household Beasts, other than to pass along their mistress’s orders or reprimand us if we mis-served them in some way. They had been with Jolietta, I was told, since they were still calves.
Other members of the household were an orangutan, two dryads belonging to nearby trees, a Satyr, two Dog-men who worked in the stable, an old Troll who served as cook, and Bebe, a fat old Centaur mare who oversaw the household and was greatly trusted by Jolietta. She was a sly creature, and I quickly learned to confide nothing in her, for she was fond of earning treats and favors from Jolietta by paying with small betrayals – or sometimes much larger – of the other servants.
The satyr, Hedonus, professed himself content in his role. He said when he had first been captured and sold, he had worked in the Southern Isles in a salt-making establishment. The Isles were not conducive to health. Hedonus said each year one out of every ten slaves died, and that this health rate, which was better than most, was reckoned to be due to a mixture of lime juice and sulfur that the overseer forced his workers to drink each morning. By contrast to the salt pond, Jolietta’s establishment was luxury indeed, he inferred in conversation, more than once, and Bebe seemed to feel the same.
There were others who might not have agreed. Workers served on the estate and a larger group was hired out as needed. These groups were somewhat fluid – servants out of favor might find themselves hired out and conversely a hired worker who did well might find themselves purchased as part of the household or estate workers. While the household servants lived within the house itself and ate in its kitchen, the others lived in small cabins erected at the back of the estate.
Although the household accommodations were severe, they were luxurious by contrast with these cabins, which were caulked ineffectually with mud and cloth against the severities of the wind. I have stood in one during a storm and heard the whole cabin singing, as though it were nothing but a musical instrument for the wind to sound as it would.
Mistress Jolietta also raised what are called dwarf dragons, though they are not properly Dragons. They are used for sport hunting by the wealthy in that area, and a pack of them can bring down any creature known, for by themselves, one can capture a creature ten times its size, which can reach up to fifteen feet. These she set me to feeding each day, which meant that I must butcher two goats and several dozen chickens every morning. Tender-hearted, I wept whenever I killed the goats until Jolietta caught me at it and beat me for my tears. After that, I steeled my heart and killed each animal as though it were nothing more than wood set animate and bleating.
The dragons, of which there were a half dozen or so, were kept in a great pen set against the cliff face that also functioned as the rubbish heaps for the estate, for the dragons preferred to nest in such, and let the baking heat combined with the sun brood the eggs. The trees had been cut back so the sunlight could fully enter the pen, and it was a malodorous and noisome place where few cared to go. I took advantage of this to seek solitude in which to heal my injured spirit. I would sit thinking and listening to the rasp of the lizards’ lovemaking – a sandpaper scrape that never seemed to cease, even when eggs were being laid in the pits scraped atop each heap of trash and nightsoil.
The dragons were worth a deal of money, I gathered. There were two clutches ready to hatch, and Jolietta set me to watching over them at night, sitting up with a torch, waiting to see any motion on a mother dragon’s part that would betoken a hatching taking place.
The second day of the watch, I was so tired that I fell asleep and woke only when I heard the croaking from a female dragon that announced her progeny.
The tiny animals crawled out under their mother’s watchful eye and headed for the shelter of the bale of straw Jolietta had directed me to put within a few paces of the heap.
One crawled beneath me, and I raised my foot, thinking to crush it and thus deprive my owner of a fine sum of money. But it was such a pretty little thing, only a foot long, with fine mottled patterns, distinct and new, along its scaly sides, and so I stayed my hoof and let it crawl into the straw. Dwarf dragons are as unthinking as animals, so I did not speak to it, now or then.
Those eggs hatched fine, but the other batch did not, and when this became evident due to the length of time that had passed, Jolietta held me accountable and beat me. While she had me beneath the lash, I cried out, saying that she had no right to do such a thing to me, and that I would run away, as soon as I was able.
She merely laughed at me and told me that in this land, there was no place that I could escape and live freely, and that I was much safer with her than I would be with some slave catcher ready to sell me elsewhere. Every hand would be against a runaway Beast, and I should be captured quite quickly and brought back for further punishment.
It would not be the last time she beat me, or that I saw another servant beaten. A small hut crouched towards the back of the estate, a great hook set dangling from its blackened roof beams. She would suspend the unfortunate victim by the wrists from this hook and the rest of the household be assembled in order to watch and learn from their unfortunate fellow’s example.
Under Jolietta’s tutelage, I learned the difference between the various methods of punishment: the searing flay of cat-tails, the bitter blow of a cow-hide whip, the thud of a rod against scarred flesh. Like other Humans I had met, she felt that the sooner examples were made, and the sooner a captive resigned to its life of servitude and toil, the better for all parties concerned.
Food was a constant worry among the Beasts of the household, although we did not live half so badly as the Beasts who were hired out to work on surrounding farms. They were given two pecks of corn and a pound of dried fish each week, and counted themselves better off than most. Nonetheless, they tried their best to be hired by the masters known for feeding their workers well, and the household Beasts smuggled out what they could of food. Most of the time, though, we ate the same mash and boiled vegetables that the Humans in the household, mainly Jolietta and her apprentices, consumed.
On the western edge of the estate there was a stand of apple trees. Jolietta allowed us to pick these as we would, for she disliked the taste of the fruit, and would watch one of us gobble a piece down, amazement evident on her face as she made loud remarks regarding how she did not understand how we might stomach such noisome provender. Despite this talk, we ate the apples with relish, for they were sweet and full of savor, and what was not eaten was dried and put aside against the winter.
We were severely punished if transgressions were discovered. At one point, directed to throw out some burned soup, I tried to scrape it into some sacking for transport to a work slave who was ailing. Jolietta found me at it and forced me to eat the cold, burned mass there and then before stringing me up for the lash. The food was the entirety of what I was given for the next three days.
I learned that in Tabat there were individuals known as Beast farmers – Humans who held the titles to Beasts by law but left the Beasts alone, to make their own way in the world or sometimes pay the farmer a weekly portion of their income.
Some did this out of the goodness of their hearts, while others chose to make their daily living in such a partnership, being too lazy or otherwise disinclined to keep the strict grasp that a slavekeeping arrangement would entail.
But for a Beast to belong to such a farmer, they must manage to save up a sum to give the farmer, with which to buy them – and this sum was inordinate indeed. Nonetheless, I began to put aside such small coins as fell my way.
Visitors to the estate – My friendship with the Sphinx - I learn to read – I am trained as a physician – I escape and am caught – I father a number of children – I begin writing this account
Other creatures constantly passed in and out of Jolietta’s kingdom, either in the process of being trained or nursed. I nursed litters of Dog-men and groomed Gryphons being trained for the Tabatian cavalry. Many institutions sent their ailing Beasts to Jolietta for doctoring. The Sphinx had been purchased by the College of Mages, and when she fell prey to cough, the College sent her to Jolietta’s farm to be nursed back to health with boxes of heated sand and horehound and pinetop tea. Jolietta allowed me to care for the Sphinx and over the month she spent there at Piper Hill, we became fast friends. Even after her departure, we passed messages back and forth as we could.
Jolietta thought me intelligent enough to absorb some knowledge of medicine. I learned to identify and pull bad teeth, to apply leeches, and to administer medicine to Beasts. She taught me the names and methods of the different preparations, and had me smell and taste each of them so I would know them in the future.
She said that if I learned quickly, she would be able to trust me with errands to outlying farms, to tend creatures too ill to be fetched to her.
As a result of learning such things, I taught myself to read and write, although my hand was poor and unpracticed. Still, I worked at improving my understanding of the art where I could, stealing pamphlets and magazines to read, hiding them away in a shed near the dragon pens.
I made it my practice not to speak much, but my mistress caught something suspicious in my demeanor and watched my actions jealously. Aware of the scrutiny, I took care to make no move that would confirm her fears. Indeed, I was a model slave, unobtrusive as a piece of furniture, quick to anticipate her wants and desires. I had feared that I might be put in a brothel, for the sailors on the ship said that most Beasts of my kind ended up under such circumstances. And to do her credit, Jolietta never spoke word or made gesture that led me to think she desired sexual congress with me.
Time wore on and I grew from my spindly youth to a broad-shouldered male. While Bebe had no interest in me, the same was not true for many of the centaur mares in the area, along with a few of the Human women. The dryads liked for me to kiss them, and stoke them with my hands, and we spent many hours in this wise, but the mares were what I ached for.
Jolietta forbade me congress, saying that the owners should have to pay well for my seed, but I managed to defy her more than once, and blame the outcome on my nature. Jolietta thought, as most Humans did, that Beasts were inevitable prey to their natures, and that I could not help taking an opportunity at congress with a mare in heat any more than I could help eating when I was hungry and food presented itself.
At first I tried to ensure that my loves produced no progeny, but when a mare is fertile, Nature takes its course and soon enough a child results. When I realized this, I attempted to deny myself such pleasures, but I was young and easily swayed by my body's yearnings. And so, within a few years, I had a number of colts, both purchased and gratis, in the surrounding area, and experienced the first pangs of seeing a child sold away from me, when a neighbor parted with mare and colt to a trader who took them northward to Verranzo’s City.
Those who advocate slavery would deny such familial bonds. Surely they have never seen a mother, wailing and lashed by despair more harshly than any cat-o-nine-tails, trying in vain to reach to her infant! The child stands, uncertain and blinking, sensing the sorrow to come, and then is driven ever more frantic by his dam’s remonstrations! More than once such a sight has torn with an eagle’s claws at my heart.
After several years of study as a physician, Jolietta began to take me with her when she paid visits to check on animals, and I would administer medicine or treatments under her watchful eye. Several of the freeholders asked her if she meant to geld me, and she spoke forthrightly, saying that centaurs of good frame sold well, and that she reckoned she would have good fat breeding fees of me.
“Ain’t you afraid that will leave him too feisty?” one demanded, and she shrugged.
“It would be a poor advertisement for my training skills if I did not trust in them,” she said.
By the time she began to put me out to stud on a regular basis, my lost children ate at me. I saw their sad faces in my dreams at night, and whenever I encountered one of their mothers on a visit, I glimpsed only reproach in her eyes. What would it be like, I thought, to live in a place where I might be part of a herd. Where I might sire children and teach them as I had been taught, how to sing, how to wield a spear, how to count on cabi.
Driven by such fantasies, I entertained thoughts of escape. While passing through a farmhouse kitchen, I had the opportunity to steal a knife that had sat waiting to cut pieces of a ham. While I found out later that my theft caused a great hubbub, suspicion did not land on me. I kept my weapon out in the garden, tucked beneath a little-used bench, and waited a few weeks to make sure that no late suspicions would lead to Jolietta searching my chamber, as happened from time to time.
I put food aside, mainly oat rusks that I stole from the kitchen and dried apples given me by the work Beasts. I stitched a pack out of burlap stolen from the stable, and read through Jolietta’s almanac to discover the next night when moonlight would be sufficient to see at night. I kept my eyes open for other items that would not be missed, hoping for a torch or lantern, but fate did not provide such.
I knew from reading the newspaper that if I made my way north to Verranzo’s City, I might find souls willing to shelter me, and eventually send me west, where the Humans were few. I did not know much of the territory that lay in my way, but I figured I might head for the coast and then work my way up along it towards that haven.
Accordingly, I left late at night, creeping out from my quarters in the stable. Under the cover of darkness, I made my way along the deserted road to the place where its cliffs overlooked the sea, and then made my way north and east from there. In the hour when dawn fingered the sky, I found a patch of woodland between fields and sheltered in its depths – the lush grass testified that only deer and smaller wildlife came there. I found a bed beneath a fallen pine and slept, dreaming of freedom, among the smell of the rotting brown needles.
My hope was that in the morning, I would not be missed since Jolietta would think I had gone to slaughter game and feed the dragons. The day was bright and sunny, and would render the dragons torpid and unlikely to complain much – I had fed them early and more than their usual the day before, and they customarily gorged themselves and then did not eat for several days. And in those hours while I was not missed, traffic would pass back and forth along the road, muddling and – hopefully – destroying my scent so hounds would not be able to trace me to my hiding place.
I was far enough away from the road that I could not hear the traffic or conversation there, and while once or twice I thought I heard the baying of hounds, carried on the wind, I was never certain. When evening came and I could move in the shadows, hiding whenever I came across another traveler, I continued to move up along the coast.
I travelled in this way for three days, living off the rusks in my pouch and food stolen from gardens where I could. On the fourth night, I heard pursuit behind me and the cries of hounds, which grew louder and louder. Jolietta had anticipated my path and been waiting for it to coincide with her patrols. She tracked me into a ravine, where I slipped and slid in the clay and mud, unable to find traction. Cassius climbed down and tied me with ropes before he and Brutus drew me up out of the rocky cleft by means of pulleys.
The beating I had earned was a savage one indeed. Afterwards Jolietta let me hang by the wrists throughout the night. I lay insensible for two days afterward, and then resumed my duties.
From that point forward, I kept any thoughts of escape to myself. I was resolved that in the end, I would, but that next time I would be far better prepared. Jolietta kept a careful eye on me at first, but as the months wore into years, she relaxed her vigilance, assuming from my demeanor that I had capitulated to my captivity.
My life in general improved as a result of my quiet demeanor, for I was determined to betray no sign of my intended, inevitable rebellion to my mistress. Jolietta allowed me better food, and the cook instructed me in culinary techniques that I might find useful in tempting the appetite of a patient or the mistress at some point. I learned how to create trifles and frumenties, soufflés and omelets, and a variety of nogs and creams and soups of medicinal nature.
Where for many, years of interaction would engender trust, Jolietta grew more and more suspicious of my motives as time passed. She stopped sending me out on errands by myself, saying that I had fathered as many free colts as she cared me to, and she would no longer allow me in the still-room, where she kept her herbs and medicines, by myself.
Word came to me through other slaves that in Tabat one of the Human presses had devoted itself to the cause of abolition, and wished to receive accounts of the lives of Beasts, in order to speak on their behalf to those who insisted that they should remain subject, incapable of governing themselves. And so I sat down to write, and penned the first part of this tale and sent it by secret means to the newspaper.
A month later, by the same means in reverse, a newspaper arrived in my room. I unfolded its stiff pages and looked throughout its sections. On the fifth page, I found these words, beginning the dense blocks of print beneath an advertisement for decorative tiles: Like many of my fellow Beasts I was born to freedom, in a small village named Dekalion, a confluence of five centaur herds.
I continued writing my pages, but it was difficult to get candles in order to compose at night. I limited myself to one chapter each purple month, and used any extra luminescence to correct and edit my prose. I composed paragraphs while working for Jolietta making pills or feeding the dwarf dragons, and polished them as I sat eating or doing handiwork in the evenings.
I did not grow up believing in Gods, such as the Humans follow. And even now, when the Humans insist that everything is theirs, a gift from those Gods, I find myself dubious, though I know I might find myself slain for such words. The Humans do as they will, and firstly say that we are like infants who must be looked over and then say we are monsters who must be controlled, creatures incapable of rising above their natures, who will do wrong to them if we are allowed to be our own agents. And so I questioned these things, and asked my fellow Beasts if they did not question them as well.
It is unknown how Fino’s mistress discovered his activities, but on the day he was due to pass his next manuscript to his correspondent, it failed to arrive. The messenger stopped at Piper Hill to secretly ask after him, and was told that he was ill.
Subsequent queries learned that she had performed some surgery on him that robbed him of the majority of his intelligence, rendering him able to feed and tend himself, but little else, and that shortly thereafter he had been sold to a passing trader, and taken to the Old Continent.
His fate is unknown as of this writing. The last piece of his narrative was smuggled out, but the hand is illegible and hurried, and only the first sentence can be read.
It says only this: “I am determined to disobey.”
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