The Ithaca slave market was in full progression by the time Lord Jaskier Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove, pulled up before the gate. He had intended to arrive far earlier to give himself time to inspect the men's pen for prospective field-hands, but his horse had turned up lame and a servant had to be sent for the carriage.
If he hadn't been so badly in need of a man to fill Latham’s duties, he'd have been content to wait the month till the next auction. But Latham had succumbed to an intestinal infestation of trillfar worms, caused by contaminated meat. He'd had the magistrates after the merchant who had sold him the worm-infested meat, but it had been far too late to save his man.
Acres of hay were in danger; the seasonal rain clouds were beginning to gather in the East. The two field hands he had trained to use the mechanical harvesting machine were not as strong as Latham; the man had been magnificent.
There was a man on the block, definitely not field-hand material. He was blond and slightly built. Jaskier cursed; usually the stronger men were brought out first. He had missed his chance.
The man, who apparently could read and write and spoke two languages, was sold to a merchant. Jaskier leaned against the tent support, pulling his shirt open against the hot wind that blew over the assembled bidders.
I might as well not waste more time. The chances that I'll find a man who can replace Latham...
And then the next man was dragged up onto the stage, and Jaskier caught his breath with shock. The man was tall and hugely muscled, his body crisscrossed with so many scars that his skin color was in question. Long white hair hung in greasy, tangled strands over the man's face and down his shoulders.
His chin had a distinct cleft and his cheek bones were strongly planed. There was only one tribe that Jaskier knew of with that particular set of racial characteristics. They called themselves witchers and lived in isolation, deep in the Hellspeak Mountains.
You scarcely ever heard of one coming down out of the mountains, and as far as one being sold at auction...
The man's arms were stretched out, fastened tightly to a long crossbar set into a harness on the witcher's shoulders. A blindfold had been tied tightly across the man's eyes. One foot was twisted, as if the bones had been broken and allowed to set badly.
He must be a runner, Jaskier thought. It would bring his price down but made him useless for Jaskier's purpose. A crippled man could not operate a harvesting machine. At least, not easily.
Jaskier spared the moment of hatred for whoever had crippled this magnificent man. What stories his scars would have told; as a doctor, Jaskier would have been more qualified than most to read them.
The man staggered and almost fell. The auctioneer’s assistant, an ugly giant of a man, hauled the witcher back upright.
They've probably been starving him to make him look more docile. There's no way they can hide that limp though. And why would they blindfold him? The most obvious reason would be that the man was blind. Another regretful injury. Jaskier wished he could get a look at the witcher's eyes to see if they could be saved. Blindness caused by injury or disease was often at least improvable.
There was something implacable in the man's expression. He was focusing on something, probably his hatred for the men selling him. Jaskier didn't blame them for keeping him restrained, the man was a bit frightening. Even when they ripped off his single item of clothing, a breech-clout, to show that he was intact, the man's expression didn't change. The auctioneer handled his genitals, pointing out the unusually large cock, good for giving pleasure and large balls, good for breeding. Once, he squeezed them, making the man’s body twitch.
“Hey!” A boy yelled from the audience. “What about his eyes?”
“He has a condition called Ticophoma that makes his eyes sensitive to the light,” the auctioneer explained. “We have to keep them protected.”
Lying bastard. Selling a blind man to anyone would be bad for both slave and buyer. Jaskier raised his voice. “You’re lying. Ticophoma would make the man more sensitive to light than his eyes. His skin would be burned. Is he blind?”
There were mutters all around him. One woman with a bucket of over-ripe apples threw one of them at the stage. It hit the corner and splattered across the dusty ground.
The auctioneer began his sing-song pitch. He started high and got no bids. He pleaded his merchandise’s assets; the powerful muscles, can go all day on a single piece of beef and a flagon of ale, lovely hair, good balls and cock. He went much lower, and the bids began to trickle in.
The witcher neither struggled nor gave any sign that he knew he was being sold.
Drugged. It was a mercy, in some ways. But the man will not show to an advantage. He'd be bid upon by those with less need. Less need meant less value, and less value translated to poor treatment.
I cannot afford to waste my money on a man who cannot take Latham’s place. All that hay, lost. And what would I do with a crippled soldier? He probably knew nothing but the sword.
I know nothing of the sword. Perhaps he could teach me. Or my sons, someday.
The boy from the audience darted out and leaped up on the stage. Immediately his mother began screeching at him, and the father to shout at the mother. The boy ducked past the grasping hands of the auctioneer’s assistance and flung himself at the witcher, climbing up over him to snatch the cloth from his eyes.
He dropped to the ground with a sneering, defiant air. “I wanted to see his eyes. I heard he has devil eyes.”
The crowd gasped. The witcher's eyes were a bright, unnatural yellow. The pupil of the eye was so small as to barely be noticed, making the eye seem even more inhuman.
Drug reaction, Jaskier observed.
“It's a demon!” one man yelled.
“Get it away from me!”
“I retract my bid.”
“And I as well.”
A clod of grass flew through the air and struck the witcher on the chest. He seemed not to notice.
The auctioneer started wind-milling his arms “My good people, there is nothing to fear. He has been rendered harmless...”
Wrong tactic, Jaskier thought. His line ought to be “there's nothing to fear, he's not a demon.” He's just a man with odd colored eyes.
Then a rock arced through the air and struck the witcher's face. His head snapped backward, his crippled foot was forced to shift and he went down.
It wasn't until the barrage begin to strike the auctioneer that the auction was called off. The witcher was dragged back into the slaves’ tent and Melonium Justice, the merchant who financed and owned the Ithaca auction, stepped forward to try and avert the potential riot situation.
Jaskier looked over his shoulder. His coachman, Bingham, was waiting with his carriage. The likelihood that the auction would even be allowed to continue was low. Still, he needed a man to replace Latham. Jaskier headed for the slave tent. He could always make a private deal if he saw something he liked.
The men's section at the pens was quite different from the women’s. The women were all kept in a common area, with the idea that they could keep each other from hysterics. Private areas were for private sales, and money always changed hands when a woman was taken off to one of those.
It was a vicious, distasteful way treat human beings. Sales of slaves in his hometown were done with more discretion and less cruelty. Just because they were criminals and property did not make them any less human beings.
In the men's section, there were a great number of private boxes and they were more heavily reinforced. Men tended to be aggressive and violent, only those who showed no signs of aggression were allowed to be in the common area, which was cleaner and more comfortable.
The Witcher was not in the common area.
Jaskier found him just as they were restraining him in his box. The drug was wearing off, or maybe the witcher was just very strong. It took five men to secure him. Leg irons and wrist irons pulling his limbs to their limits to prevent him from getting leverage. When the last manacle was strapped in place, the witcher ceased to struggle. His pupils were no longer shrunk down to pinpricks, but his eyes still refused to focus.
“Fucking animal.” One of the men balled up his fist and struck him below the rib cage. The witcher folded over to the extent that the chains would allow it, but did not fall.
Fucking coward. You wouldn't have done that if the slave had had his hands free. “Where's the auctioneer?”
“Don't worry about any bids you made on this one.” One of the men waved a hand. “Dog-meat Drappel is buying him.”
Dog-meat Drappel was an unsavory character who ran a dog pit in the center of town. They forced dogs to fight each other and sometimes other animals as well. He was known to buy puppies in bulk, and he kept all his bitches for breeding. The attrition rate of his games was quite high. But he made a lot of money and he could afford to keep them replaced.
Jaskier wondered how many dogs Dog-Meat was planning on shoving into the arena opposite the witcher. He would make a fortune, on the percentage that he took from wagers, if nothing else. It would be illegal, or perhaps not. A slave did not have the same legal protections that a freeman did, and the law did not specify, saying only that “only animals might be made to fight.”
I might as well stop pretending I'm going to let the witcher be sold to anyone but me, Jaskier thought with a sigh. He didn't need an extra mouth to feed, but the estate was doing well and there was no shortage on his accounts with Corbin and Sons, Money-lenders. It would be a shame about the hay, but at least the grain had been stored safely in the barn last month. He could just plow the ruined hay back into the soil and it would be the richer for the next year.
“I'm not here to get my money back,” he told the man. “I hadn't yet placed my bid. Please fetch the auctioneer for me.”
The man eyed him. He been in the field helping operate the harvester this morning and he hadn't had time to change. And he wasn’t as well known among the lower classes as he was to the upper.
“Fetch him yourself,” sneered the man. “Or don't. He's already bought and paid for by Dog-Meat.”
Arguing with these riff-raff would be a waste of his time. Jaskier turned on his heel and went in search of the auctioneer. He found him in the courtyard that bordered the auction house, washing tomato stains from his tunic. One of the thrown fruits had found a target.
Lord Jaskier.” The man spoke with grudging respect. “How may I be of service to you?”
“The white-haired man with the odd eyes. I wish to purchase him.” Jaskier decided he was better off pretending ignorance of the man’s origins.
The auctioneer gaped at him. “Whatever for?” he blurted out.
“My man, Latham, has died. I need a very strong man to help with the harvester. The white-haired fellow looks to be quite strong.”
A conflicted look flowed over the auctioneer’s face. It was easy to read him.
Lord Jaskier will pay me more than Dog-Meat could for the slave…
If Lord Jaskier isn't pleased with his purchase...
Caution finally won the day. “I'm truly sorry, my Lord, but the man has already been sold.”
“To whom?” Better not to admit prior knowledge.
“To...Mister Drappel,” he admitted.
Jaskier let his bottled-up outrage emerge. “That sir, is entirely unacceptable. It is shameful enough that we allow man's bloodthirst to be quenched on animals. It is an unhealthy practice and if you allow it to be advanced to blood-sports using humans I will go directly to the mayor-elect and have all responsible parties cited and fined. Severely.”
In truth, he didn't give a crown for the moral quality of humanity, they would go to hell as they would, but it sounded better than I will not allow dumb animals to be killed for people's amusement. He had almost persuaded the mayor-elect to ban the Pits on the basis that watching savage acts made men savage.
He wasn't certain if he believed it or not but it didn't matter.
“My Lord... You put me in a difficult position.”
“No. Refusing my request would put you in a difficult position.”
“My Lord…” The auctioneers voice had taken on a distinct whine. “I have already taken and spent his money not an hour past.”
“Three hundred crowns, my Lord.”
Well, that made it official…there would be nothing left to purchase a field-hand today. There were fifty ten-crown marks in his belt pouch. He counted out twenty of them into the auctioneer’s hand. “I'll take the rest and return...D…Mr. Drappel’s money to him personally.” With bloody pleasure.
“Th...thank you, my lord.” The auctioneer performed a deep bow.
“When I return, I'll take my new field hand with me,” Jaskier said. “Have him prepared for travel.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Then more hesitantly “My Lord?”
“What is it?” Jaskier snapped. Am I being unfair to the man? Jaskier wondered. I find the practice of slavery abhorrent, but it is legal. The man is just doing his job.
Latham, and all his other field-hands purchased as slaves were now freemen. He wondered how long it would be before he could safely do the same for his latest purchase.
“The man was a soldier. He is...can be...aggressive. I fear he will not be well suited to the role which you plan to put him to. Maybe a guard?”
“I'm well aware that he is a soldier. The scars make that obvious. But I have found that many soldiers settle well into a life which does not require them to risk their lives for every engagement.”
“If you say so, Milord,” the auctioneer murmured.
Jaskier could practically hear the man's thought processes. He had warned Jaskier and now he could say it wasn't truly wasn't his fault when the man rose up and murdered everyone in their beds...
Jaskier found Dog-Meat on a deeply rutted dirt road next to the auction holding pen. He had a cart containing a cage about the height of a man's thighs. It would have been adequate for a dog, which could comfortably lie down in it. A man the witcher's height wouldn't have been able to sit upright.
He was fastening a set of manacles to the inside of the cage.
Jaskier tossed his coin purse into the cage. Dog-Meat jumped and whirled about.
“Three hundred crowns. The auctioneer sends his regards and returns your money to you.”
Dog-Meat spat on the ground. “I don't want the money. I want the fighter with the demon eyes.”
“If I ever become aware that you have added human beings to that vile sport upon which you make your living I will see you ruined,” Jaskier hissed. “I will see you jailed, your profits confiscated and if any humans die in your pit I will see you hanged for murder.”
The man's eyes popped open in alarm. “You can't do that. The penalty for a slave death is just a fine.”
“If I must, I will bring forth a witness who will swear that the man was falsely accused and therefore ineligible for enslavement. That will elevate his death to murder.”
God help me, Jaskier thought. Is this what I must become in order to address these injustices? Does the end justify the means?
Dog-Meat didn’t even look surprised that a lord would stoop to falsifying evidence. He snatched up the coins and counted them on the spot. “You're one short” he told Jaskier sullenly. It wasn't until Jaskier made him lay out the coins in piles of ten, and then made him turn out his filthy pockets, from which dropped a gold ten-crown and other items that made Jaskier ill to look upon, that the man agreed he had indeed been repaid.
Then Jaskier marched him back to the auction office to sign a paper to that effect. He didn't trust Dog-Meat not to recant at a later date.
Finally, all the papers had been signed and Jaskier found himself in possession of a white-haired, scarred ex-soldier with a limp, who was bound to be a handful once the drugs wore off.
I've always said life was better for a few challenges, he remarked to himself as he headed off to the slave pens to pick up his purchase.
When he got there, the pen which had contained the witcher was empty. There was a man with a broom and a mop and a bucket of water, cleaning the pen.
"Where's the slave that was in this pen?" he asked.
“Taken to be gentled, milord,” the man said indifferently.
“What!? I didn't ask for that!” Fuck! Gods, let me be in time to stop this. Auctioneer, you bastard, were you even going to inform me of what you had done?
Covering his ass. A gentled slave was thought to be less aggressive, and from auctioneer’s perspective, less likely to cause problems.
If he thought to have this done before I signed the papers there would have been nothing I could have done.
The first thing that hit him as he burst through the door was the smell of burnt flesh.