Being enslaved was better than dying but only barely. Kennet did what he had to in order to survive as a slave with the knowledge that freedom would risk being found by the people who drove him into slavery. Kennet saw no reason to do anything extra for the men who bought him. They didn’t care about him and he didn’t care about them.
That was true until the royal family of Penhale purchased Kennet guard Prince Didymos. Protecting Prince Didymos from the assassins seeking to kill him dragged Kennet into the world of national politics and onwards to face an enemy that threatened to destroy not just Kennet but the whole world.
Kennet didn’t want to deal with any of it, the assassins or the magic that lurked around him but if he wanted to survive, Kennet would have to not just face down the threats surrounding them but also track the assassins back to their shadowy leader.
What he found at the source of the chaos changed Kennet in ways he could never have anticipated, taking him in all new directions. Hopefully Kennet’s new skills would be enough to let him save the world, his lovers and himself.
Artifacts of Awareness
By Meyari McFarland
17: Contest of Wills
King Rihab’s men hauled Kennet out of the tent. Despite the healing Princess Tahira had given him, Kennet needed their support. His legs were incredibly wobbly, as weak as if he’d just spent hours kneeling with no respite. Kennet winced as they pulled him out into the pounding heat of the sun. The impact of the sun’s rays was a hell of a lot like getting hit over the head. Kennet knew because a moment later he was hit over the head by one of the guards, apparently just to make the point clear that he was a captive and should be polite.
“Seriously?” Kennet asked, raising an eyebrow at the guard. “That’s the worst that you can do?”
The beating that followed wasn’t that bad as beatings went. King Rihab’s men apparently knew not to break any bones or do too much damage to him. They avoided his gut, the cut on his arm and didn’t even make his nose bleed. Most of the blows landed on his back which was more or less pointless as beatings went. Kennet was far too used to having his back beaten for the blows to bother him.
When they stopped Kennet shook his head and laughed at them. It wasn’t a good idea. Apparently being used to much worse beatings made his response into in insult against their manhood.
“Oof,” Kennet grunted when the lead guard slammed his fist into his gut. “Better. Not putting much of your strength into those swings though. Might try adding a snap to the impact if you actually want to have an effect.”
King Rihab growled behind Kennet. This time when the guards hit Kennet the blows were much more serious. It still wasn’t what he was used to but their fists impacted hard enough to leave marks on Kennet’s skin that would quickly bloom into bruises. Kennet curled around his stomach as much as he could, taking the blows while snickering that they’d fallen for it.
“Better,” Kennet drawled. “Still not hitting the throat, eyes or genitals. They do make a much bigger impact, you know.”
“You are insane,” the lead guard hissed at him, just quietly enough that King Rihab might not automatically hear him.
“Nope, just got nothing to lose,” Kennet replied.
The camp was bigger than Kennet had expected. Outside of the tent where he’d been kept there were a dozen more tents, most bigger and more impressive. Off to the left he could see a corral full of horses lazily swatting flies away with their tails. There were a lot more women than he expected. They wore dark dresses with shawls draped over their heads to keep the sun off. Kennet could see sweat on their foreheads, matching the sweat that bloomed over his body. He tasted salt when he licked his upper lip.
To his amusement, the guards holding him up slowed a little when Kennet stumbled. They shook his arms as if to tell him to keep up but they didn’t drag him when he deliberately allowed his knees to collapse underneath him. Instead they supported him as he stumbled a couple of steps before getting his feet underneath himself again.
“Could this be any more of a joke?” Kennet asked as they emerged from the circle of tents into the even greater heat of the sand surrounding them.
Now he could see what the construction had been. King Rihab had ordered his men to pound posts into the baked earth. A set of four smaller stakes had been arranged off to one side while another couple had been set up directly in front of Kennet. One post was ten feet tall, a log as big around as Kennet’s head. There were iron hooks hammered into it high enough that Kennet would have had to stand on his tiptoes to touch them. They weren’t at the proper height given the chains and manacles attached to one of the hooks.
“Now that’s just sloppy,” Kennet complained to the men holding him up. “Look at that. The chains should be at least a foot shorter or the hook needs to be that much higher. How can you get the proper stretch with that set up?”
He saw King Rihab out of the corner of his eyes. The anger on his face was obvious but King Rihab’s shoulders were raised defensively, as if Kennet’s comments had hit home on his sense of accomplishment. Kennet clucked his tongue disapprovingly when he saw that the hole at the base of the post had been filled with sand instead of having the earth packed back in to make it secure.
“Did it a bit too quick, guys,” Kennet said. “Look at that post hole. The post’ll shift around like crazy. Should have packed the earth back in and wetted it. You got a mage or two. They could have dried the earth again and it would have been like concrete. Waste of time doing it this way. You’ll only get one, at most two uses of the thing this way.”
“Tie him to the post,” the lead guard snarled. “And bring my whip.”
“That figures,” Kennet said with an exaggeratedly disappointed sigh as he was dragged over and his arms were secured in the too-low manacles. “Sorry for being less than impressed but you were avoiding all the important spots and this is just disappointing. You should have more pride in your work.”
“Do you want to die?” one of the guards tying Kennet’s hands to the pole hissed under his breath. “Be quiet or they’ll beat you to death!”
Kennet grinned at him, wild and wicked the way he used to when he fought in the pits. As bad as this might be, there was no way for Kennet to lose. Sure, he could die but that was winning as far as Kennet was concerned. Losing to him would be submitting to King Rihab, giving up his freedom for the ruler’s mad plans.
The one fundamental truth of this encounter was the Kennet knew he needed to be alive to fulfill King Rihab’s goals. He couldn’t be hurt too badly. He wouldn’t be killed. And right now it looked as though King Rihab’s men lacked the guts and balls to torture Kennet enough to break him.
Every fucking person in the world can be broken, boy, Kennet’s training master said in the back of his head. Kennet could almost feel the man’s hand clamped around the back of his neck. That’s fact. I can be. You can be. Anyone can be. It just takes finding the one thing that terrifies a person so badly that they can’t think. Once you got that, they’re putty in your hands.
Kennet laughed into the rough bark of the post, sweat dripping down his arms. His training master had thought he’d found the key to breaking Kennet. He’d pretended a terror of spiders, easy enough given the massive mutated spiders back home, and cowered at the man’s feet, done exactly as he’d wanted whenever spiders were mentioned.
But it had all been an act and Kennet had never had to face his real fear: magic stripping his soul away.
King Rihab might try to do to Kennet what Elder Danek had done to so many others back in his home village but it would defeat his purpose. A Blood Slave wasn’t capable of independent thought or action. If King Rihab wanted Kennet, and he did, then he needed Kennet free and able to act against whatever came at him. He needed Kennet’s mind, his soul.
So he couldn’t break Kennet. There was not one damned thing that King Rihab could do that would break Kennet but still leave him able to fulfill his plans.
The man shuddered at Kennet’s grinning laughter and backed off, leaving his friends to finish securing Kennet’s hands and feet. His borrowed light pants were stripped off, leaving him naked. That was better as far as Kennet was concerned, even though it meant that he faced a real danger of sunburn. This way he got more of the currently nonexistent breeze on his sweating skin.
When Kennet looked over his shoulder at the lead guard, the man’s expression was frightened under his fierceness. From the way his eyes scanned Kennet’s many scars he thought that the man had realized that this wasn’t an easy job. Beating Kennet into submission was going to take more than the lead guard was capable of, no matter what King Rihab thought.
“Give it your best shot, tough guy,” Kennet called. “Let’s see what you can do with that toy.”
He made sure that his voice carried across the whole camp. Idris and Princess Tahirah were watching with King Rihab by their sides. Princess Tahirah looked annoyed that her healing work was being undone but her son Idris looked horrified by the whole thing. Kennet ignored them and focused on King Rihab.
“Begin,” King Rihab snapped, his eyes full of anger while his face showed only disdain for Kennet’s dramatics.
When the first strike of the whip seared against his shoulder Kennet barely moved. It didn’t break the skin, didn’t even raise much of a welt. The pain was negligible so Kennet just snorted as he kept his gaze firmly on King Rihab’s eyes. The lack of response to the first blow made everyone other than King Rihab flinch. When the next blow didn’t come Kennet turned a little farther so he could raise an eyebrow at the lead guard.
“What?” Kennet asked. “You lost your nerve here? Get on with it. Pretty sure the king over there doesn’t have all day.”
“You want to die,” the lead guard said in a wobbly voice.
“If I die then I finally get to punch Haraldr in the nose for all the crap he’s given me in this life,” Kennet declared loudly enough that it probably carried out into the desert. “But I don’t think you’ve got it in you to do it. Get on with it. You know you’ll be up here next if you don’t and if you haven’t realized that yet then you’re stupider than you look.”
Most of the people watching showed no signs of understanding what he said. A couple of the guards glared at him. King Rihab’s nostrils flared and his lips went thin. To his right, Princess Tahira shook her head as if Kennet was being unbelievably stupid. The only one who seemed to find it frightening was Idris who clutched his mother’s skirt until she absently slapped his hands away.
The insult made the lead guard flush but the thought of being in Kennet’s place was pretty obviously what made him shake the whip out given the frightened glance towards King Rihab’s glowering face.
His next blow was much stronger, breaking the skin immediately. Kennet grunted his approval and returned to staring at King Rihab. A third blow hit his lower back, then a fourth on his ass. Kennet kept staring. Blood trickled down his back. The blows kept coming. All through them Kennet refused to look away, refused to bend, refused to yield.
He would not yield to this petty king and his murderous plans. Kennet hadn’t bent to Elder Danek’s evil magic. The Alliance slave training hadn’t broken him. All King Rihab could do was kill him. There was nothing that he could do that would make Kennet submit. He wasn’t a tool or a pawn, no matter what sort of life he’d been forced to live.
“Yield,” King Rihab whispered, the word inaudible but clear on his lips. He made the ‘knee’ gesture again.
“Never,” Kennet mouthed at him between grunts from the whip’s impacts against his back.
“Father, he will die!” Princess Tahirah exclaimed as the wet blood on Kennet’s back got widespread enough that it felt cooling as the heat of the sun evaporated and dried it. “Stop this insanity!”
His legs were shaking and barely able to support Kennet. He wasn’t sure how much of Princess Tahirah’s objections were real and how much were for form’s sake. Kennet already knew that King Rihab had no intention of killing him. A dead pawn was a useless pawn. The thing of it was that Kennet wouldn’t play pawn. It would be better to be dead than to serve yet another master who didn’t give a damn about what Kennet wanted or thought.
King Rihab’s head reared back as Kennet thought that. Kennet laughed that he’d gotten through to King Rihab, at least a little bit. He kept on laughing as his legs gave out and his full body weight fell on his arms. It made it incredibly hard to breathe but that didn’t matter. Death was a perfectly valid option for Kennet though it certainly wasn’t the one he wanted to choose. If he died it was all over. Not what he wanted any time before he was old and grey, certainly, but he’d rather die than serve again.
“Cut him down!” King Rihab shouted.
Hands caught Kennet and hauled him upright so that they could cut him free. He laughed, feeling utterly free for the first time in so very long. The euphoria was probably blood loss combined with heat and exhaustion. Kennet didn’t care. It felt good to be happy and free. His body shuddered with the pain and blood loss but he couldn’t stop laughing. King Rihab hauled Kennet’s head up so that Kennet had to meet his eyes. The grin and continuing chuckles appeared to infuriate King Rihab.
“Fool,” King Rihab snarled.
“No,” Kennet said despite how hard it was to breathe. “You’re the fool. You’re the fool, Majesty. I told you what I wanted. I told you what I am. You’re the fool for not believing me.”
“Tie him to the stakes!” King Rihab shouted.
“Father!” Princess Tahirah shouted so harshly that it was practically a bark. “We need him!”
“There are others we can use,” King Rihab snarled.
Kennet managed to lift his head before the guards hauled him away. He met King Rihab’s eyes and smirked. The frustration in King Rihab’s expression said something entirely different from his words. Laughter welled up and filled the silent village of tents as Kennet allowed himself to the quartet of wooden stakes that had been pounded into the hard earth. As they tied him to the stakes with his arms and legs spread, bleeding back on the hot dry earth, Kennet kept laughing.
It was foolish and dangerous but Kennet couldn’t lose this little battle. King Rihab either played Kennet’s game or Kennet died. Either way, he won.
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