Herra invaded in my seventh summer, but the machinery of war didn’t reach me until the sun had cycled through another year. When the clash of metal and shouting drew near, my mother hid me inside a trunk in our rooms. She warned me to be brave. No matter what I saw or heard, I must be quiet.
Bowing to the thread of fear in her voice as much as to her command, I obeyed. My lips pressed stubbornly shut I was as silent as her dead, blank eyes after the soldiers discovered her.
Swords dripping crimson, the men dragged me from my hiding place. Numb with shock, I didn’t fight them. They hit me anyway. They bound my wrists and ankles with shackles weighed down by heavy chains, and pushed me from my rooms, through the stronghold, and into the outer courtyards where I hadn’t been permitted to play since the previous spring. The stench of smoke, sweat, and death stung my eyes.
A narrow corridor opened among the gathered warriors, and a shove between my shoulders propelled me forward. The men, easily twice as tall as me and enormous with muscle earned in battle, laughed when I stumbled. They jeered and spit on me. A wooden staff emerged from the crowd and struck me. I fell to the dirt, wetness trickling at my temple to smear the grime on my cheek into warm mud. Vision blurred and ears ringing, I would’ve lain there, my grief cocooning me from the pain of the blows, if a fist hadn’t bunched my tunic and yanked me upright.
Soldiers marched me through the gates and into the enemy encampment, to an enormous tent at its center. I didn’t understand Herran then, the guttural sounds and abrupt syllables as foreign to me as the abuses I’d suffered. But I didn’t need to understand the words. The triumphant hate of my captors required no translation.
I was conquered. Despised and debased. I hadn’t yet learned my place.
They stripped me by cutting my clothes from my body. They razed our stronghold until not one stone lay on another. Soldiers soaked the rubble in pitch so it’d burn. Then they salted the fields. They made me watch, naked, trembling, and kneeling at the invading general’s feet.
I didn’t cry.
Indeed, I never voluntarily uttered another sound again.
Victory complete, the massive army turned back to Herra.
I was separated from the other noblemen’s sons. They were no less prisoners than I. Any fool could see that, but the other boys were given food, tutors to educate them in the manners and customs of the Herran people, carts to ride in.
I was given work and the whip.
I served the general. I fetched his meals, dressed him, mended his clothing, and warmed his water for bathing. If I pleased him, he fed me. Mostly, he beat me and laughed when his men pointed to fresh bruises every sunrise. My bones and muscles shrieked during the endless marches. My soft feet throbbed with each torturous step, but my master ordered me close to his side, wrenching me up on his horse only when I could no longer keep pace.
By the time the towering ziggurat of their heathen god darkened the distant horizon, my mind had shut down.
Upon reaching the city, my master presented me as a gift to his king. A dizzying mixture of terror and hope squeezed the air from my chest. The ruler of Herra did not appear many summers older than me. He wasn’t full grown, not yet a man.
I was disabused of any foolish notion that my new master’s youth might offer mercy, though, when he sent me to work in the kitchens. As a slave.
I was prodded awake before dawn to fetch wood for the fires and cookstoves. I was responsible for maintaining those fires throughout the day as well as heating water for scrubbing soiled crockery. Had I been fed and trained properly, my bulk would have rivaled that of the soldiers who’d captured me, but my masters allowed me only a miserly chunk of bread each day. Though surrounded by food, I didn’t try to steal more. My first night in the kitchens, a fellow slave was caught pilfering meat from the slop buckets. They cut off his hand. I would’ve stolen something–anything–to end the misery of starvation if that boy had bled to death, but, no…he survived.
As did I.
Whether I wanted it or nay.
I spoke to no one, and no one was permitted to speak to me except to issue orders I was to obey. The other slaves bedded down in quarters next to the kitchens where we worked, but not I. Shivering and naked, I slept shackled to the stone hearth of the kitchen until my eighteenth summer, when the Herrans considered me a man.
On the night declared as my eighteen birthday, the king raped me. I had no tears left in me by then, so I suffered the king’s touch in silence. When he’d finished with me, he returned me to the kitchens. From that point on I was passed among the freemen, who were my masters, as both slave and whore.
It was my life. I knew nothing else.
Plague swept Herra that year, creeping into Xerxes’s palace to fell men far stronger and mightier than me. Isolated in my kitchen prison, I listened to the whispers and sly murmurs of other slaves as they passed my station by the hearth. My masters beat me when I was caught, but I was at least unsurprised when I woke one predawn morn to violent chills that racked my body. Sweat slicked my skin, though I’d lit no fires, and the kitchen was bitter cold. My bones hurt. My throat was scratched so raw I would’ve been unable to speak even had I been willing.
I worked as long as I could. I feared the whipping post more than illness and death, should I fail at my duties, but the threat of scourging couldn’t defeat the spinning in my head. I finally swooned and dropped to the kitchen floor.
I woke on clean sheets, a thick mat of blankets cushioning my aching body from the cold stone floor. Alarm jittered through me. I’d be flogged for daring to rest on so fine a pallet. Flogged, beaten, and raped as never before. Frightened, I tried to force my eyes open but could barely manage to lift my lashes to narrow slits. My weakness paralyzed me.
The king’s hard face scowled down at me, the cruel slash of his mouth twisted in angry disgust. “Your carelessness has nearly killed him,” he snarled over the shoulder of his fine silk robes. “He is no use to me dead.”
The king had matured into adulthood, his shoulders broadening, taut muscle filling out his frame. Whereas I… My starvation had stunted me. I stood several hands shorter than other slaves, and I was so painfully thin–an easy target for the abuse of my masters and my fellow bondmen as well. If the king wanted, he could break me in half. Remembering my night with him, his prick splitting me wide, I found the plague had not crippled me after all. My stomach churned with both sickness and wild terror. I shifted to roll off my stolen bed–
Xerxes clamped down on my bony shoulder, holding me fast. “Be still, Micah.”
Micah? Was that my name? I didn’t recognize it.
Mute, helpless with my fear, I shivered under his steely grip.
“You will not be punished.” When he patted my shoulder, dread froze me in place. “You must rest and grow strong again.”
Strong? I frowned because I had never been strong.
“Stronger, then.” The king’s lips curved to a malicious smile. “Sleep. Eat what is set before you. My personal physicians will attend you and apprise me of your progress. Do not think to escape me in death.” He bent and kissed my mouth, chuckling at my petrified gasp. “If you die, I will follow you into the underworld to exact my displeasure on your sweet ass night and day.”
Anxiety roiled in my belly. If anyone could pursue me past the gates of hell, I believed Xerxes would do it. And I feared him as I feared no other.
His eyebrow arched. “You will grow well?”
My head dipped with a sharp, scared nod.
“Good.” Xerxes ruffled my hair. He glared above me, to my left. “Bathe him. By the gods, he reeks.”
* * * *
I slept. A lot. I ate everything laid before me, as commanded. And promptly vomited it back up. I grew sicker. Frailer. Weaker.
“Micah? You must try harder.”
I shifted restlessly on my pallet, the scrape of the blankets agonizing against my skin. That voice. His voice. It chased me in my dreams and sometimes taunted me when I woke, no matter that my gritty eyes proved the room I’d been locked in was empty save for the healers sent to nurse me. I’d begun to believe I feared his phantom presence echoing in my fevered mind more than the reality of him perilously close, but I was wrong. I quivered and moaned, my voice hoarse with disuse.
His ripe curses echoed in my ears. “He’s never made a sound before, even when I bedded him. Do something!”
“His body is failing, my lord. Is there no one else? Another to take his place?”
“Only the promise of punishment to the boy holds the Alekites in check.” The king grunted. “They already stir against me.” Fingers plucked at my eyelids, forcing them open.
Brutal light speared into my skull. Pain dug into my eyeballs. My spine arced like a drawn bow. I screamed. Mercifully the crude touch disappeared, shuttering me in blessed darkness once more.
“His fate is yours. If the slave dies, you die with him.”
* * * *
I didn’t die. Nor did I return to the kitchens, not until the moon waxed and waned again. My illness had devastated me. When my fever broke, I was as weak as an infant. Nursemaids changed the sheets I couldn’t avoid soiling. Their touch firm and impersonal, they bathed my emaciated body after each humiliating episode. They raised my jaw to spoon broth past my lips as often as I could hold my eyes open to stay awake and be fed. They strengthened me like they would a valuable piece of livestock. No more, no less.
In time I was permitted to lean against a nurse’s arm and walk on unsteady legs around the room. When Xerxes strode through the door, I would’ve fallen if my nurse hadn’t caught me, so great was my fear. I dropped to my gelatinous knees anyway, stooping to the swift bow expected of me. The chill stone of the floor bit into my forehead while I trembled and fought the nausea that assaulted my tender stomach.
“Better. Much better.” Xerxes patted the bare cheek of my ass but did not bid me rise. “His health is returning?”
“Yes, my lord,” the nurse answered. “He needs only exercise and fattening.”
The hand on my ass fondled me, one finger sliding up and down my crease.
I shuddered, my terror locking the air in my lungs.
“Good.” The king’s low chuckle and the threat of his exploring touch spiked my pulse. “A shame to cover an ass so fine and delicate, but the kitchens will be too cold for him now. See that he has a tunic before he returns below.”
The tip of his finger brushed my tightly clenched hole. I stiffened.
“Order the kitchen staff to leave him unmolested for a fortnight as well. He needs rest.”
* * * * *