An Invisible Knife
Copyright © 2001 by John Henry Wilson
I’d like to thank Dr. Clara Anthony for her criticisms and editing help.
Time magazine estimates there are 27 million slaves in the world today. I’d like to dedicate this to them.
Lydia paused at the unfamiliar sensation around her ankle, the tiniest hint of weight that warmed and tingled when she wasn't thinking about it. The slave girl replaced her polishing rag in the bucket and lifted her black slipper onto Master Tomas' dressing chair. She raised the dress of fine white linen -Lord Whitefire liked his girls pretty- up the length of her smooth, tightly muscled, milk-and-coffee calf.
The tiny silver chain still hung there, as it had when Quin gave it to her this morning, just below the invisible dagger. The bauble was a pretty thing, around what Quinterra and Lienessa, Blonde and Blonder, assured her was a shapely ankle. It’s silver links were so fine that the entire chain was as slender as most wire, so tiny it must be halfling work, with a polished drop of rose quartz hanging down her Achilles tendon. There was nothing to indicate its magic save for a hint of warmth that she couldn't really sense when she focused on it. Yet Lydia regarded the anklet as she might a poisonous viper who'd taken up residence in her bed.
The trinket was a charm to prevent pregnancy. Many considered them an idle toy of the rich and titled, a talisman so expensive no one had ever bothered to outlaw their ownership by slaves. Yet rather than consider the power it gave her, the power to live what life she could without offering more children into a life of bondage, the anklet only served to remind Lydia of how much she loathed Lord Whitefire.
A soul had to be, right? There were masculine versions of these trinkets, and they were well within Lord Whitefire's means. If he'd only bothered to wear one, the leg Lydia was staring at might be the same ebony as her mother's. The man who loved her like his own would be her father in blood as well as name. Maybe she could control the hate that flashed in her eyes whenever she looked up at Whitefire and Tomas. Maybe she'd be free to hate Lienessa, to endure the invitations to join in the reading and gossiping wrapped in her secret pride and secret rage instead of feeling girlish giggles and tomboyish guffaws slip past her throat to mingle with her white sister's and her only white friend's.
Maybe she could believe that Quinterra really was her friend, that the aspiring - paladin - next - door liked her for who she was and not who her "father" was. For the secret times in the basement salon where she taught Quinterra street fighting and capoera, while Quin taught her the sword. Some days, when they read from Anakeiry's "Steel and Roses" serials and fantasized about becoming adventurers together, sword ladies for hire or knight-errants of The Silver Swordmaid, when they day-dreamed about rugged knights and handsome barbarians, men who would want three tomboys for more than just their bodies... some days Lydia could almost imagine Quin really was her friend.
Then the aspiring paladin would give her something, a dagger, or a textbook, or a god-damn-it-all-to-hell pregnancy charm, and Lydia knew she was nothing but Quinterra's favorite cause.
"What's that around your pretty little ankle?" a voice leered from the doorway.
Lydia leapt back so her dress would again cover her leg, knocking the chair over as she went. The slave girl stammered apologetically, simpering to "Massa Tomas" in the simple dialect of a country slave as she straightened the chair, but it was all reflex and facade. Inside hate burned in the slave girl’s chest as fear tightened her throat. Tomas stood in the door, darkly handsome, arrogant and relaxed, but when Lydia managed a glance at the young lord's face, his green eyes where smoldering, his lips where tight.
Oh shit, his latest air-headed blonde left him panting again. The bastard's going to be all pinches and tantrums till he drinks himself senseless.
Tomas glided towards her, arrogant as a cat, forcing his masculine presence into Lydia like sewer-water till she found her back fetching up against the wall, felt the corner of a painting digging into the tip of her left shoulder blade.
"That's quite a pretty little thing for a slave to be wearing," Tomas laced his fingers through the slave girl’s silken curls where they fell past her ear, "maybe I should help you," his voice turned husky as he breathed, "break it in."
Before Lydia could stammer helplessly for a way to worm out of this Tomas was slobbering over her lips. Mother had warned her she'd have to endure this sooner or latter, but not from Tomas. Not like this, not from...
Lydia’s meek facade shattered at the rage within. The girl's fists cracked off the young lord's short ribs just before she hurled the brute across the room. "Stop that, asshole, you’re my brother!"
Rage flared in the young lord's eyes as he loomed over the slave girl without seeming to move. A lifetime of conditioning froze Lydia like a rabbit espying a viper. Then agony cracked along her left cheek and jaw and Lydia found herself lying across her master's dressing table. An instant later the girl was jerked into the air and bouncing off the feather mattress of the bed. Then Tomas was on top of her, legs forcing between her own, the enraged face above hers swallowing the world. "No nigger bitch is a sister of mine, bitch." He slapped her again. "Say it."
Sobs convulsed through Lydia’s body as her fingers grappled towards the invisible dagger. She cursed herself for wearing it even as she cursed herself for lacking the courage to use it. If she hurt Tomas, even while defending herself from an incestuous, therefore illegal, rape, her life would be over. They'd send her to a salt mine or a cotton farm to be worked into an early grave. If she cut him they'd hang her, but only after torturing her for hours to reveal the source of the invisible knife, which would start a nation wide witch-hunt.
"Say it, bitch!" The pain exploded into the slave girl’s right jaw this time. Lydia clenched her fist, nails biting into palm, as she sobbed, "No nigga bitch is no sister of youirn."
Tomas laughed like a headsman and ripped open the bodice of her dress. As Lydia’s breasts spilled into the brute’s hands something exploded inside of her, obliterating thought. Lydia found a filthy hand and snapped it all the way back against the arm. She saw Tomas's eyes bulge and realized her fingers were pressing into the most vulnerable points in his throat. The slave girl stood, holding the young lord on his tip toes by the fingers of one hand and backed him into a table. She heard her own voice whispering, "If you ever lay your filthy hands on me again I'm going to break every bone in your body before I feed you to the rats. Say that, ass hole."
As Tomas babbled something soundless Lydia realized he couldn't draw breath. Again the slave girl's rational and conditioned self took over and she recoiled in horror.
Tomas sputtered in rage as his rapier seemed to leap into his good hand. Lydia screamed and ran for the door, knife forgotten.
The portal slammed open in front of her. Quinterra burst into the room like an avenging angel, rapier and main gauche flashing in her hands. Platinum blonde hair made a cloud of silver behind the aspiring paladin, rich blue eyes burned with cobalt fire. Quinterra lunged wordlessly towards Tomas' face. The young lord parried that blow to the right, but Quin's wrist twisted and she tangled the young man's rapier in the quillons of her own, then pulled both blades aside to step in and flatten the handsome boy's nose with the basket-hilt of her main gauche.
Tomas reeled aside but managed to free his blade. The young nobleman brought his rapier up and lunged down at Quinterra's belly, but the blue-eyed paladin forced the blow inward, to where she could catch it in her main gauche's quillons, then twisted in a way that Tomas was too week to resist and spun his rapier across the room.
As the point of Quinterra's blade kissed the young lord's cheek, the blood burst into argent fire, as if the Silver Swordmaid were personally inflicting the wound and meant him to bear the scar for life. Then Quinterra deliberately backed the rapier up and settled it slowly between Tomas's legs. "Listen well, brute. I broke your hand. I put those bruises on your throat. I stopped you from raping your own sister. If I ever hear otherwise I'll pierce each of these degenerate gonads before cutting them out and stringing them around my neck. Do you understand me?"
Tomas whimpered and nodded vehemently, then fled the moment Quinterra removed her blade.
The aspiring paladin wiped her rapier-tip on Tomas's bed as quickly as she could, then sheathed the blades as she threw her arms around Lydia’s trembling form.
The mocha-skinned girl felt her arms go around her friend as tears began welling out of her eyes, but squashed the emotion down; shuddered as she forced it away from her. There would be no weeping in the arms of patronizing paladins.
Quinterra didn't seem to notice; she just squeezed Lydia’s limp body and murmured comforting noises. "No more," Quinterra hissed, "I won't let you stay in this house another day!"
Oh Hell, now the great and noble paladin is going to buy me.
Four years later:
Know ye that ye enter the forest kingdom of Elithiira
Long live Samnaratch, the Elfkin King
So read the sign a little up the mountain slope that the first of the wagons was just passing, but Lydia spitefully clamped her jaw shut as Quinterra, never the best of readers for all her love of tales, laboriously sounded out the archaic script and Lienessa, whose weak eyes the hearers couldn't entirely mend, slipped on her hated spectacles.
"Samnaratch has reigned for three hundred years," Lydia’s platinum blonde half sister and the most bookish of The Swordmaid's Tomboys began, "and before him there where two human kings by that name. How long do you suppose that sign has been there?"
"Longer than King Federico has ruled Shallot, I'm sure," Lydia’s mistress replied. Quinterra was a real paladin now, if such a thing could be said about a young woman who'd always been filled with the Warrior Goddess's power. The Lady's energy had bleached her hair to silver and deepened her eyes to lilacs. The paladin was resplendent in her warrior's regalia, fine-linked, halfling crafted chain mail with a cold iron breastplate to dampen magical attacks shaped around a chest that could easily be mistaken for an armorer's wild exaggeration, both under a silk tabard depicting the silver owl of the Warrior Goddess's knightly order. A matching banner fluttered atop her lance. Long quillons on the nineteen-year-old swordmaid’s main gauche and a dwarven enchantment upon her rapier allowed Quinterra to use her favored weapons against heavier weapons, and a heavy bladed spear offered the paladin an alternative for use against heavily armored opponents. A few daggers and a seven shot repeating crossbow rounded out the arsenal, the last the favored weapon of those ridiculously wealthy but lacking arte enough to use a magic wand.
Though forced into the roll of squire, Lydia was almost as expensively armed. The elite cavalry of Shallot rode giant, four-armed kangaroo's called murlins, and as a gift on the occasion of her twentieth birthday last month Lydia had been elevated into the "elite cavalry." A gift the slave-woman thought she wanted right up to the first moment she tried to gallop. The mocha-skinned sword maid wore the same chainmail as her mistress, tiny rings of the most modern steel weighing almost two thirds of what the armor she might have worn a hundred years ago did. Beneath the metal a layer of dense leather rested over the padding, an attempt to slow rapier thrusts, against which chainmail was otherwise a liability. Lydia claimed the breastplate was too heavy but wore a cold iron lattice which also served to shape the armor to her feminine chest, just one more indignity that had to be endured to please her mistress, like the almost waist length curls shoved under her helm. Though Lydia joined in the gossip and fantasy she had yet to meet a young man claiming to like her who could go ten minutes without trying to get her pants off. If Quinterra was to be believed, her suitors composed poems about her eyes rather than telling her she had a nice ass, danced with her for hours and brought flowers rather than feeling her up and bringing several bottles of whiskey.
For a man like that Lydia just might willingly endure the agony of brushing out fifty tangles every morning, but when the woman who owned you said how good you looked with long hair what were you supposed to do? When she "invited" you on a quest to liberate a sacred valley from a Reptilian horde what where you supposed to do?
Damn it all to Hell, when would Quinterra stop pretending her slave could say no?
Then Lydia rode past the sign and the revelation hit her like a hammer blow. She was not in Shallot anymore. No one in Elithiira owned slaves. If the rumors among the men she danced capoera with were to be believed, they might not ask any questions if she ran away and took up residence in an Elithiiran tree house. She could do whatever she wished, work as a servant or a sword lady or a farm hand, work for an honest wage from an employer she could leave at any time. Free.
She could run away. All she had to do was loose herself in the orc-infested mountains for a few weeks. It couldn't be that hard, not with her armor and bastard sword, her sling and crossbow, her murlin and a packhorse full of food and valuables. Not with the comfortable weight of her invisible knife against her left wrist. Few warriors could be spared from guarding the caravan to hunt a runaway slave except...
The law was clear, when traveling in foreign lands a master was responsible for bringing back or killing a runaway slave. For all her talk about a better life for all people and the gradual abolition of slavery, Quinterra was a great believer in the law.
But it wasn't even so simple as the fear of an armored knight; for Lydia would win that fight. Lydia was taller, stronger, and almost as fast. Lydia could wield her bastard sword as deftly as Quin danced with her rapier and still keep a hand free to hold a shield. Lydia beat her mistress in three sparring matches out of every five.
As for Lienessa, the young mage was yet to reach the power all warriors feared. She was a poor runner, and Quinterra had a cold iron mace that could destroy her sisters magical defenses with one blow, but...
There was no holding back in a fight like that. Not when her sister could kill with a word. Not when two warriors were so closely matched. There would be no disarming and wounding, then running; not when a paladin could heal with a touch and banish fear with a prayer. This would only work if she could kill Quinterra.
That was easy, right? She was a slave; a fourth generation prisoner. Quinterra Winterstar owned her. Whips and laws and threats bound Lydia into servitude, and her children, and her children's children, till the end of time! True Quin had never used whips or threatened with laws. True Quinterra offered monies and gifts even more often now that she was maid and squire to the young paladin...
But silk draped chains where still chains. A woman in a velvet cage was still a prisoner.
Only Lydia had laughed and danced and gossiped with her jailer since both were little girls.
No, I'm just her cause. Her nigger girl who couldn't possibly live a decent life without a white woman to teach her the way.
I'm going to do this tonight.
One can't begin to know what darkness is, what darkness really is, till she’s camped in the mountains on a cloudy night. It was as if oblivion encircled the camp just beyond the lurid gleam of the fading fires, as if you could walk ten paces and cease to exist. Quinterra's silver hair spilling around her bare white shoulders gleamed like molten copper, and the bare blade in Lydia’s hand as she approached seemed already covered in blood.
Other crusaders and artisans camped a few paces away, but thanks to a ward woven by the party's three mages no one stood watch. Horse and murlin where saddled and ready; Lydia needed only to grab a torch and ride away. No one would be the wiser till sunrise.
But then Lienessa would weave a seeking spell, and she and Quinterra would ride out to slay the runaway who couldn't have gotten far in the dark.
Foolish honor was a nobleman's toy, but maybe someday Lydia could find a sort of practical honor. Some day, when she was free.
I have to stab her through the left side of the throat, piercing the voice box and the jugular 'til I see the point escape through the right side of the neck, then jerk back a bit to make sure I severed everything. She'll probably never even feel it, wake to a sunrise in the next life.
Nothing to it.
No time to scream.
Two quick cuts and its over, I'm free.
Lydia’s body was a ruby in the firelight. The shaking hand clenched around the dagger paled till it seemed already drenched in blood. Lydia’s eyes focused on it for a long time, then focused past it. In the all-consuming blackness the slave woman could almost literally see the memory.
Tears beaded in the honey-haired girls wide, blue-green eyes. "I just can't do this. I can't! I can't! "
The slightly older girl, almost ten, looked over the blonde child's shoulders, fear and pity mingling. Lydia could only read enough to follow along in her prayers, and those prayer books were the work of scriveners, not this new-fangled printing machine, yet there was a printed alphabet at the top of the table. Was it really so hard that the tutor had exiled Mistress Quin to the parlor while the other Winterstar, Whitefire, and Truesteel children -for the three neighboring families had chosen to share the service of the cities most prestigious tutor- played in the garden? "Um, maybe I could help you, mistress?"
"Don't call me that, Lydia," Quinterra commanded reflexively, "you're bigger than I am."
A giggle burst form the slave girl’s lips at the joke she'd almost forgotten. A joke from the foggy, long ago time when they played dolls and learned to wrestle in the same nursery, the blonde girls, brought to play together, inviting the black nurses daughter to join them in the blissful ignorance of youth.
Lydia slowly matched up the letters and strung them together into sounds. "Anna-kiery master-ed mag-ic wit--with twel-ve other dis-cip-les of Nick-a-le-o the arc-mage, who use-ed the lan-gu-ege of the Reeman em-pire to chan-nel different el-em-en-tal ener-- gies. On comple-tion of their a-prent-tice-ship, apprenticeships, the thirteen set out to bring back the glory of the Ree-man em-pire. Anakiery married petty-king Cha-da-ral Winterstar and together they un... united the lands that became Shallot."
Quinterra's blue-green eyes gleamed. "So our nation could not have been born without the power of her first queen."
Lydia’s brown eyes were widening. "But mis... But Quin, isn't your name Winterstar?"
The honey haired girl nodded excitedly, "my great, great," she counted the greats off on already delicate fingers, "great, great, great grandfather was the king’s brother, but that king only had daughters, so now the royal family’ name is Firehawk. I thought slaves couldn't read, but you were great!"
Lydia lifted her chin proudly, "The alphabet is right there; it's easy."
The honey-haired girl nodded consideringly. "Maybe we can make a deal. I'll help you keep learning if you read to me. Deal?"
Chocolate brown eyes widened. She could really learn to read, learn history, science, mathematics, maybe even magic like her half-sister. "Deal!"
Lydia dropped into a crouch as she shuddered, drawing great rasping breaths that weren't quite sobs, almost wishing she could remember how to cry.
A morning came. And then another. Lydia could barely sleep nights, only stare into the stars and blackness, searching for new ways to call herself a coward. Quinterra was starting to notice the circles around her bleary brown eyes, and Lienessa matched the paladin's patronizing concern. They passed four other signs declaring that this was the true border with Elithiira, and several other stubs that could have once been such. Each time they passed a border markf Quinterra glanced at the chest of fine dresses and feminine fripperies atop her second pack horse, no doubt dreaming of handsome elven men and elegant dances under the stars.
Lienessa had taken to flirting with a fellow mage who usually rode at the front of the caravan, so she was out of sight when they passed a sixth such sign.
A daring fox drew close to the train, perhaps hoping to be tossed a scrap of the breakfast bacon.
Then the creature leapt atop Quinterra's second pack horse and light rippled around it. Red hair sucked into a bristly brown body with scattered scales. Lips pulled back as needle-sharp fangs lengthened. Sprouting ivory claws slashed the ropes holding the chest as paws extended and segmented into fingers, legs reshaped and stretched 'til the creature resembled a carnivorous cross between a fox and a monkey. The kobold hefted the comparatively massive chest over its shoulder and dashed away, all before any could recover from the shock of its appearance.
"Oh blast!" Quinterra's prim curse held all the feeling of Lydia’s vilest phrases. "By all that's holy catch that chest!" The paladin was kicking her horse up the slope even as she spoke.
Silks and fripperies worth enough to feed a village for a decade, damn fool thing to be taking to war! Yet Lydia was already heeling her murlin into action, obedience such a conditioned reflex that she forgot for a moment how many years it took to get the knack of riding such a beast. The murlin's first leap hurled them twenty feet high, across forty feet of open air, to land on the mountain slope.
Lydia’s stomach stubbornly refused to budge from the trail. The bounce jerked the mocha skinned swordsmaid's head forward, then slammed her back into the padded saddle-seat with jaw-jarring force.
The second leap carried her over Quinterra, and the third put them well ahead of the kobold, yet by the time Lydia managed to turn her beast and fumble out her sword the tiny monster had turned and raced past a boulder.
When Quin followed the monster a mountain lion appeared atop the boulder, roaring loudly, and the paladin's pretty white "war horse" reared in panic; throwing the lilac-eyed swordsmaid to the stone.
Quinterra rolled out the fall, tumbling and clanging down several yards of slope, but came to her feet and raced on with fierce determination.
"Fuck this!" Lydia grabbed the lever used to instantly release the saddle restraints in emergencies and slid from her murlin's back. She prepared to drive away the fearsome cat, but it shimmered to nothing as she passed. "It's using illusions," Lydia shouted an instant too late. The stone beneath Quinterra's feet vanished an moment after the paladin had fallen clear through it; an illusion over a gorge.
Fear tightened Lydia’s throat as she called her mistress's name, but the cry became a chuckle as curses blackened the air above the gorge. She'd never heard the noblewoman say, "shit," before.
Lydia leapt the seven-foot gorge, then turned to watch as Quinterra Winterstar pulled herself clear of a briar patch, trying not to rest too much weight on her left leg. "I'm fine," the paladin ordered, "get the chest!"
There was honest desperation in the noble woman's voice. Gods, how pathetic a snob can you be, Quin? Lydia snorted in disgust as she raced on; sword tucked inside her right arm, protruding over her head, brown eyes going tawny with the thrill of the chase. Quin could have never caught this thing in that heavy breastplate anyway. The chainmail was bad enough, like trying to run with a bag full of stones slung over her shoulder. As Lydia somehow found the strength to draw close to the little monster it rounded a corner.
As the mocha-skinned woman followed, some primal reflex prompted her to tuck her shoulder and roll off of the invisible boulder she slammed into without quite wrenching her arm from its socket. Up ahead the kobold waggled a five-inch long, dog-like tongue at the tawny-eyed swordsmaid before taking off again.
Lydia growled a complex slur against the creature’s parentage -something about a baboon lying with dog droppings and the offspring becoming enamored of an overweight pig- as she stumbled back into her sprint.
The kobold entered a field of boulders, weaving between them so that Lydia lost sight of it every other moment. Rounding another rock tawny eyes had half a moment to register the chest resting atop a rocky outcropping before hooked talons where flashing towards her face. The mocha-skinned swordsmaid staggered back, arm flying over her face so that the talons found steel instead of flesh, before the kobold's feet struck her in the chest and knocked her into a backwards roll.
As Lydia’s back slammed against a granite wall the kobold was already darting behind another boulder, again carrying the chest.
The growling woman rounded the rock and spotted the kobold again, coiled to pounce, and swung her sword with all her might.
Steel shattered against unyielding granite as the illusion over the outcrop vanished. "Shit!"
Then the screaming kobold dove from above and behind. Lydia twirled and threw herself back, planting her foot in the tiny monster's belly, and hurled it into unyielding stone.
The vicious creature bounced to its feet and pounced at the mocha-skinned swordsmaid with foam snarling through its fangs.
Lydia twisted her right wrist and felt the spring-sheath loaded dagger shoot into her hand. The brown-eyed woman lunged at the leaping kobold but it caught her wrist and swung with the blow while tearing at the back of Lydia’s hand.
The mocha-skinned swordsmaid cursed as the pain caused her to fumble the knife. Then Lydia had to stagger away from her blade as fangs shot towards her face. Claws gouged the slave woman's cheeks before she caught the beast and hurled it away.
Lydia grappled for her wits as she saw the kobold climbing towards the chest, talons finding tiny cracks in the boulder.
The tawny-eyed woman's hands flashed reflexively, jerking a dagger from her left sleeve as the kobold turned to face her, prepared to dive.
A hole appeared in the monsters throat. Steel faded into sight as red blood oozed over the dagger she'd kept secret for seven years, the iron in the kobold's blood disrupting the subtle and fragile enchantments.
"No..." Lydia was too shocked to curse. Their mysterious benefactor had spread these daggers for a very specific purpose, to be their ace-in-the-hole when they made their run for freedom. Lydia had just wasted her secret weapon on a chest of snobby clothes. "No."
The slave woman stood in shock for many moments before climbing the stone to retrieve the chest, trudging to the spot where Quinterra had just emerged from the gorge. "Thank the goddess you found it!"
Lydia plunked down the chest and reeled in a second shock when Quinterra rushed to throw it open and dig through the contents. She didn't even stop to heal my wounds.
As Quinterra's shoulder's disappeared inside the chest Lydia fell into her most simpering tone, "Here's yo’ chest, miss’us."
With a crow of triumph the silver haired woman jerked out of the chest, spilling silk and velvet over the dusty stone. "Lydia..."
The paladin pressed a sheet of formal parchment into the slave woman's hand. Brown eyes widened in shock. Full lips worked soundlessly.
The Lady Winterstar hereby certifies and avers that Lydia of Valon Shar is a free woman, Duly witnessed and notarized by the court of...A sob exploded form Lydia’s throat. Then her arms convulsed around her friend's waist as wetness raced down her bloodstained cheek.
"...don't ever call me that again."
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