I couldn't help but shiver when he touched me. I was naked and wet, but the water was warm enough and the wind was warmer; it wasn't that.
He was a free man and my master now, a new master, and a mystery to me. I didn't even know his name yet; I had no idea how to please him. And he had a whip in his belt and a switch in his hand; that's enough to make any slave boy shiver.
It wasn't just that, though. There was more, so much more.
Any free man is frightening, but a mage is worse. Even free men are frightened of a mage. And I'd seen him working magic with just a word and a wave of his fingers—that same voice that spoke so casually to me, those same fingers that were handling me.
More than that, he'd used the magic on me, in me. That mind had flowed all through my body—I'd felt it, like water washing through wool, warm and quiet and powerful—and the magic had made me well when I was dying.
He'd done that for me, just a slave. No surprise if his touch made me shiver.
And more than that, even, more than any of that, he was a tall young man, strong and fit and darkly handsome. Thick black curls, long lashes, startling blue eyes and a sudden smile. His touch would have raised shivers in my skin if none of the rest had been true. My old master had been—well, old. With bad teeth and a mean temper. And a worse wife.
If I could have chosen, if I could have dreamed someone new to belong to, it would have been someone like this. Someone my own age, with no twist of cruelty in his face. Someone who would matter in the world, who would make a difference, do some good. A master to be proud of, happy to serve…
That wouldn't make him kind to me. I'm not a fool; I knew that. Already his whip had kissed me. Which his lips hadn't. Some masters do, some don't; I'd learn soon enough which way he leaned. What he wanted from me.
Right now he sent me running for his pack. Obedience and training had me turning on the word, though my heart wanted to stay just where I was, in his eye and under his hand. At least, as I trotted away from him, he couldn't see how more than my skin had responded to his touch. My cock had been stiffening as I stood there, starting to jut. He might have liked that, he might have laughed at it, he might have been contemptuous or angry. I had no way to tell, and I didn't know enough to guess.
I'd find out soon enough, most likely. My body would betray me again, and he'd react one way or another. In public, maybe, if he was going to keep me naked. Or he might wait till we were alone—but that would be a kindness, and I shouldn't expect him to be kind.
He might or might not have noticed my cock misbehaving. He couldn't see it now—but even so, I thought I felt his eyes on me. I couldn't tell if his gaze was thoughtful or cynical, curious or hot, but I was sure that he was watching.
By the time I'd heaved his pack onto my back, he'd turned away to touch each of the townsmen in turn, to sink his mind into their bodies and see if they were sick.
I guess not. At least, he didn't work to heal any of them. Instead he nodded at their urgent pleading, squared his shoulders and set off along the road. He didn't even look back, to check that I was following.
* * * * *
Of course I was following; of course he knew that. His bag was heavy, but I dogtrotted to catch up, then fell into step behind him as a good boy should.
He still didn't glance over his shoulder, but I knew that he knew I was there. I could read it in the way his head lifted, the way he so very carefully didn't look around.
My lips twitched in a smile that he surely wouldn't be aware of. I hoped. If mages could read minds, I might be in trouble every day. I'd never heard of it, though. People don't talk about mages much, not even free folk—it isn't reckoned safe; but slaves listen to everything, and whispers carry. Sometimes I think we know more than our masters do, about their own business and the world in general.
One thing I did know about mages, they have their training on an island where there are no slaves. They carry their own burdens, wash their own clothes, keep their own rooms clean, and cook their own meals. For years, all the years it takes to make a talented youngster into a master mage.
Just from his youth, I was guessing that my new master was not long off the island. I thought he'd forgotten how to handle a slave. He'd lost that easy, casual arrogance that free men learn as children; and he knew it, and was feeling for it, faking it when he had to.
I'd help, when he needed it. Sometimes a slave just has to train his master.
I walked naked in my master's dust, and the sun burned on my skin; and soon enough my muscles were burning too, my legs were weak and shaking, and I couldn't keep up.
Master followed the townsmen, and I followed him, but I was falling farther and farther behind. And trying to skip and hustle again and again to cover that gap, and stumbling over my own feet and never quite getting there, and gasping for breath in the hot,dry air and almost sobbing in weakness and frustration and…
And eventually my master stopped and turned and came back to me, which he should never have had to do.
I gulped and stood still in the road there, blinking up at him in sudden nervousness.
“Easy, lad,” he murmured, pushing his hand into my sweat-wet hair and shaking my head gently. Some masters like to handle their slaves; some hardly touch them. Already I had my new owner down as a confirmed handler. Maybe it was only because he was new to this, or I was new to him; maybe it wouldn't last, but at the moment I treasured his touch. “I'm sorry, I forgot; you've had a hard time of it, haven't you? Seeing your people die and being sick unto death yourself, near enough, and then that desperate chase for your life. It's no wonder if your legs are giving way a little now…”
He soothed me with his voice and with his hands too, running them over my ribs like a man gentling a colt. He tugged at the straps of the pack; for a crazy moment I thought he was going to take it, but no, he was only adjusting them so that it fitted my back better. He gave me a drink from his waterskin, a good long drink, then tipped the rest of it over my head. And rubbed roughly at my dripping hair, grinning at me, so close I thought he was going to kiss me.
Instead he stepped behind me, gripped my wrists, and drew them back.
I felt the familiar grip of my master's cuffs, shackling my wrists at the small of my back, and then the familiar touch of my master's switch, stroking lightly over my butt and thighs. My muscles twitched, and he laughed at me.
“You're a good boy,” he murmured, “but you need some help now, don't you?”
And the air hissed, and the switch bit sharply, once and again, and I had to bite my lip to keep from yelping. If Master had forgotten how to handle slaves, he was remembering fast.
Then his fingers were under my chin, forcing it up, and again I thought he might kiss me; and again I was disappointed, because all he did was clip a leash to the ring of my collar.
“I won't have you embarrassing me in front of these fools,” he said, still in that low, confiding murmur. “The sore butt is just a reminder, to help you along. If you drag on the leash, if I even feel it tighten, I'll thrash you properly. Understood?”
“Good lad.” His hand was on my body again, and my cock was stiffening again just from that intimate closeness. This time I knew he wasn't noticing, because his eyes were closed. I felt him inside me, the touch of his mind again, just fleetingly. It was as if fire flowed through my bones, burning out the exhaustion, burning out all the terror and effort of this last day. I gasped; his lips twitched, but even that brief effort at a smile was strained and unconvincing.
He stepped away, cuffing me lightly as he went. Whatever energy he'd passed to me, it had come direct from him; he looked pale and weary, staggering a little as he turned back towards the impatient townsmen.
The switch, the threat, the leash: between them, they would have been enough. I'd have kept my proper place at his heel, whatever it cost me, not to shame him in front of those men. That touch of magic was a gift, unheard of.