The funeral fires were still smoldering, but after four days the flames were no longer visible within the blackened collapsed pyres. My anger, with the flames, had subsided but still simmered within.
The damned Kursh were the focus of my anger. It was not that they had tried to kill me. They have been trying to do that for over half my life. It always turns out badly for them. But this time it had cost the lives of over thirty of my warriors. Brave men and women, faithful and skilled all, had died because the Kursh continued to pursue a course that was doomed to failure.
Besides the thirty-three dead, another twenty were wounded, and almost half of them had sustained injuries that would be with them the rest of their lives-severed limbs, damaged eyes, disfigured faces.
That over one hundred Kursh had been killed in their attempt was no consolation. If the damned sheep rapists wished to kill me, fine, but leave my warriors out of it!
But the business of the Keep cannot be ignored for too long, no matter the provocation. As I stood on the observation platform above the reaping floor, most of the slaves had looked up. Those that had been long in the service of Honor Keep had given a gesture of respect, acknowledging the losses of the Keep. I returned their gestures with a nod, meeting the eyes of several. They then went back to their work.
The large room with its wooden pillars was well-lighted. The sun windows were open on the slanted roof. The slaves worked from when the sun was high enough to provide sufficient light until it was too low on the opposite horizon. At the end of each day male slaves carried the barrels of sugar pulp to the pressing machines in the adjoining building. Some of the female slaves gathered the stripped fibers into bundles and set them aside for others to take for fuel for the fires; others swept the wooden floors.
Then the slaves would go to the outdoor baths where they would wash themselves and their clothing. All servants and slaves that worked in the reaping shed had two sets of clothing, except for the gloves. The day's clothes would be hung up to dry during the following day.
Then I saw her. My anger melted away like the rare snow in the following sunshine.
My anger disappeared, partly, because when I saw her I knew at once that the attack by the Kursh, and the battle, and the deaths of my soldiers had all been a pre-ordained part of my destiny.
But the main reason was because I could no more look at her and maintain anger than I could nurture rage in a field of flowers.
She stood out like a cut diamond in a display of river rock. It wasn't just that she was pretty... outstandingly pretty, really... because there were other pretty slaves among the workers. Some real beauties, in fact. The silvery hair, though, was unique. Only the Aelfir had hair like that.
She had looked up also, as had the other new slaves, acquired as spoils of war when the Kursh were defeated. She studied me with curious interest until one of the others had nudged her and urged her to return to work. She'd given me one last quick glance and then bent reluctantly back to her duties.
"Tom, why was she not sent to the house? She is obviously Aelfir."
"Honor, I only suspected that she might be. I have not your learning, nor your eye. That is why I requested your visit. I did not wish to simply send her to you. There was an incident, and I believe she may be dangerous."
"Has she been beaten?"
"Of course not, Sir."
"Unlikely. But that is why I think there is more to her than meets the eye. There were three of the guards that decided to do just that. Two of them came to me with the body of the third, and confessed the story.
"It seems that they cornered her outside as she returned from the outbuildings. The one approached her boldly and went to grab her, and not gently. She reached up and touched his forehead with her hand. He stopped, stood motionless for a few seconds, and then collapsed, dead.
"The slave looked at them fearfully, they said, and then ran back to the barracks. They brought him to me."
"What did you do with them?"
"They were given their pay to that day and then driven out past our western garrison and sent on their way. They were told not to be seen near Honor Keep again."
"Good job, Tom." I noticed he took the compliment with pride. He was one of many former slaves that had earned their freedom with their performance. My father had freed him, and he had consented to stay after I became Honor.
"How's her production?"
"Terrible. She tries, though. At first, she wept all the time. I do not think it was because she was a slave, since she was that already. It's the work. She could barely bring herself to break the stalks and strip the fibers. Her hands trembled, her fingers barely plucked at the ends of the stalks. It was necessary to speak harshly to her to inspire her to actually do the work. It seemed to actually cause her pain."
"It did, in a way. Her hands are meant to make things grow, not tear apart. She'll be far more productive in the orchards and gardens, and even the fields. Pull her in an hour and bring her to the house yourself. Tell them she is to bathe before the evening meal and be given clean clothing suitable for garden work. I'll have a place prepared in the barracks there.
"Generally, how are the new ones adapting?"
"Quite well, Honor. They still seem surprised that we do not treat them as the Kursh did, and many behave as though they expect the relative kindness to be a trick of some kind. We've reassured them, but it seems to make little impression."
"They will learn over time. But don't relax the guard, either. They belong to the Keep now, and though we may treat them with some respect, they are still slaves. We know too little about them to allow them the freedom of the Keep or the town."
Tom bowed. "Yes, Honor. It will be as you say. Our thanks for your visit. I will bring the Aelfir to the house an hour hence."
I nodded and walked out of the building into the sunshine. I was tempted to take a last look at the Aelfir woman, but denied myself. I'd see her soon enough.