I was not made as others. This is the rule that has shaped my life. To know myself was to know my difference; the thoughts dawned together. Then I grew, and learned more each day how much and how far I differed from my kind.
Perhaps it is mercy that we are so unlike. For those companions of my youth, so bright and full of promise then, so tired and broken as they must surely be now, will never know what was taken from them. Our captors think us born to be slaves, for so it has been a thousand years and more, from that moment when first one of them set his will upon one of us. And it may be that they are right. For I have never met another of my people who seemed even to understand the bondage in which we are held, the servility that is forced upon us. Now and again one will fight – at the first rough touch of the bonds, the feel of a man's weight pressing down on a frightened young body, the lash of punishment when their will is contested. Then come the screams, the protests, the panting struggle. But there is only one ending. They yield. In time, all yield. We are what they would make us.
I am not. Herein lies my difference, and very nearly my death.
It may be that my father was like me; I have heard him cursed often enough, and most when I balked at my captors' commands or set my will plainly against theirs. But I did not know him. That is rare amongst our kind. He was brought; my mother and some others were given to him; he went. He was a giant in strength and clever as well, so they set him to breed as he would. But in me, they rued what they had created. They would rather I was dull in my wits.
My mother was more their ideal – docile, gentle, "sweet-tempered" as they call it when one sinks easily into servility. When I was very young, still shy and clinging to her, I thought that she must be made as I was, and looked to her to explain our lives. But she offered no aid or even recognition of our plight, and so I began to learn my difference. Each night of my first winter, huddled in our dank and freezing shed, bound when our captors were free, hungry when they were fed, sunk in darkness while they lived in light and warmth, I puzzled on the fate that had befallen us. It was agony to see my people the slaves of those who did no labor but kept the fruits of our exhausted toil. But in the winter darkness my infant mind began to shape itself, and gradually I understood. It was not only that those around me lacked the courage to rebel – though their eyes were dull, their frames stooped and sunken, and their will ground out of them in endless toil and the hard cut of the whip. No. There was more. Their minds were in darkness. They were held in the prisons of their own thoughts and could not see our lives rightly, nor feel the bitter injustice that stung my heart.
So I grew wiser. When I was very young, I had trusted our captors, as they brought me food and spoke soothingly to me. When older but not yet wise, I hated them, and resented any touch, any word, any attempt to win me with honeyed flattery and coaxing ways. They sought only to make me a slave from an infant, and I fought them bitterly, until there hardly was one of them who dared approach me. But then one day, dozing by a low window, I heard two of them talking, and learned what fate I built for myself. A slave so early fierce marks herself a dangerous creature; so, for me, they thought perhaps an early death the answer. I marked, and learned better; I submitted myself to them, and showed myself "sweet-tempered" until I could grow stronger and fight them plainly. In short, I grew crafty, sullen, deceptive and resentful of the thousand liberties they took upon me while I bided the hour when I might join the battle openly.
That hour came when I was sold. I had word of it early; they wished to breed my mother again, and thought me a bad charm on any sibling. Too, they thought it time my childhood was ended; put plainly, they wished my spirit broken, my will crushed, and my body bound to some man of theirs to do with as he would. Though I had escaped a swift death in my childhood, still my nature was too unlike that of my comrades for them to relish the task themselves. They would sell me to some unsuspecting stranger and let him rue the poor bargain he had made.
I tried to say goodbye to my mother. But I felt then more than I ever have the gulf that lay between me and others of my kind. She was gentle to me as always – but as sunken to our captors' will as they could wish. I had not even words, for only I had learned the language of those who held us in bondage. The others knew only the blows of a ready hand, or a few simple phrases beaten into them with effort by men who would have them heed readily. I could not tell her what I knew would come in the morning – but it was more than words that balked me. Though my heart cried out for one sign from her, one gesture of recognition in that form I loved, the light never came. She could not know me, nor know what it meant to be born as I was, raging against the lash, my life a scream of protest. She knew only the dull surrender of will that our captors taught so well, and prized with smirking self-congratulation when they had crushed it down upon a living, feeling being. I could only huddle against her, pressing close to her body for her warmth and scent, burning the moment into my mind as I stored it up against the world to come.
In the morning they took me from her. As I was led over the hill down the long road leading from the home of my birth, she called out to me once, puzzled and curious as she realized that I was going. But I had no words to answer her, no way to tell her all that I knew and felt in my heart. I could only resolve not to give the joy of my despair to the grinning lout who yanked at my bonds, tugging me with him down the slippery cobbles of the road. I held my head up, and looked straight ahead as my people and family disappeared behind me. In all my life, I have never seen any of them again.
They brought me to a market square and crammed me into a pen with others in my condition, poor helpless souls of all ages, male and female, child and grown, all huddled in terror as we faced our fates. I was too miserable to fight then, and too wary. I had learned the foolishness of struggling early and wildly with no object in mind. Our captors were merciless in our subjugation. If I broke loose here, there was no hope at all; one sight of me walking down the street of any town, and a dozen of them would be on me in an instant, casting me down in bondage until he who claimed ownership of me came to punish my disobedience. We were a marked race, with no hope of hiding our shame or evading their swift retribution. Too, they held food and water; to flee with no hope of finding those was only to hasten death or capture. Better to bide quietly; better to come away from those who knew my nature too well, and plan my path before I struck out upon it.
Such were my thoughts as I crowded together with the others in the stink of filth, fear, and despair. Now and again a man would come and take away another of us to be pawed, pulled, and bartered over in the public square. I saw mothers and children dragged apart, some with screams of fear – though my heart broke less painfully then, in truth, than for those who watched their own kin brought to the block with only the same dull acquiescence that had been beaten into them from birth. At last my turn was come, and I was led blinking and stumbling into the press of men who flocked to buy our servile bodies.
And I was servile. I saw well the glance of the man who claimed me, and knew his thoughts as well as if he spoke them. He did not like me, nor trust my new-found gentle ways. He was eager to be rid of me, and if I hampered him in that goal, I would pay a heavy price – perhaps the last price. I stood quietly, though I felt their hot, sweaty hands running over my body, feeling my chest and legs until my stomach rose and I trembled with hatred and revulsion. At last they had done their vile business, and traded my blood and spirit from hand to hand as if I were a cask of ale or a heap of old clothing.
I was brought, then, to huddled knot of others like me, and now I began to learn what manner of man had bought me. We were all young there, I nearly the oldest though only just coming to think myself grown. All were scared; all hunched together in fear; none had a spark of anger or resistance. I was alone once more, and my heart fell. But I kept close watch on the men who guarded us, and listened carefully to their words.
I learned then in speech what I would soon see in practice. We were bought by a man who trained our people for market. He took bright, flighty children and broke them, teaching them to fear the whip, to cringe before a fist, and to stoop to bondage and dull servility. He was such a one as I knew would come, and such as I had feared. As we followed him, bound in a long line, out from the market and through the cobbled streets, my heart sank in despair. Yet I watched still, and learned all I could. Every crumb of knowledge was a straw to cling to. We trudged all the day, over the hills and away to a distant town. At last we were brought to a great, drafty shed, packed in together – and then in the morning he began to break us.
It was the work of many days, and so I had time to watch him. He would cut a frightened child out from the group, isolate his victim, and then set to work. This alone was terrible to see – but what words can express the horror at seeing my own people aid him in his cruelty? I had known my race to be broken and bound to our masters' wills, but to see their strength and swiftness turned into his own, their strong bodies racing to pin a frightened child and force her to a life of slavery – it near broke me before I ever felt the touch of the whip.
But I must face the truth, which I had put from me again and again. I was alone. They were not made as I was, and I could not blame them for crimes that they could not even understand. I ached to see them made the tools of our captors, but the fault was not theirs; it lay in the hands that drove them. I could do nothing to help them, but must try to save myself.
I sharpened my mind in watching how they worked. The bonds, I could see, aided them greatly. With my head held tight with ropes on either side, I would never be able to bring all of my strength to bear on any one of them. Two of our big males were used for the force of their bodies; they would push me aside and force me to stand and walk where they would. Then there were the men who moved with them; it was they who would place upon me the signs of my bondage, the heavy leather and metal that would let them use my body as they would. I watched them intently, thinking how best to fight them, seeking where they might lie open to one as strangely made as I. When they came to me at last, some days after they had begun to break my comrades to slavery, I felt myself ready.
I made no protest entering the ring where they gathered, laughing, to watch my torment. I had seen others try to bolt, and saw where it got them. The two big males on either side walled them off easily; none escaped that way, and many spent all of their strength in striving, so that they were left exhausted and helpless when the real struggle began. I came quietly with my head down, my feet shuffling, looking as meek and biddable and spiritless as I knew how. Here, among people who did not know my ways, I was believed.
"Pokey little whore, int she?" The man I'd watched most carefully – the one who stood in the center of the ring and directed the others with a sharp voice – spoke as I came in. His eyes were cruel and spiteful, but I held my ground and my temper. This was not the time, not yet. They had two ropes on me, one held by each of the men on either side, and they were watchful still. They usually were, until the gate of the corral shut. I stood sloppily, limp, and nosed at the dust as the gate swung closed behind me. Then they did as I had seen them do before. One stood back, holding the rope, while the other bent down to tie his line to a post. That was my moment.
A man stooping down from a horse is in a bad position. He has no grip on his mount and no balance in his body. I yanked hard on the rope as he bent, grown careless, and pulled him with me. The other was ready, braced to hold me – but I didn't run away. I'd see too many try that and fail; I was not the equal of their strength. I ran at him.
That startled him. The man was surprised, and the mount more so. I charged them with fire in my eye, and the horse shied at the last moment. The rider barely kept his seat, and he dropped the rope. I shot off as fast as I could, straight at the one who was still struggling in the dust. He covered his head as I flew over him, and with a feeling of exultation I felt the rope pull out of his hand. I circled to the far end of the corral and turned, their bonds dangling loose before me. The first victory was mine.
I thought then that I could win. I thought that if I put enough of them off, they would let me go. Such is the naiveté of youth. I had no real grasp of the role my people played in the world – of the money the men had put into purchasing me, the value I would have once trained, or the simple cruel arrogance of men that forbade them yielding to one such as I. It was a child's dream of freedom. But at that moment it seemed real.
I soon learned otherwise. The man in the center of the ring – the one with the whip – watched all of this calmly, though his eyes narrowed as he looked me over. The others picked themselves up cursing; he only smiled, an ugly smile that made me shift uncomfortably on my feet. I could not get the bonds from off my head, and the long dangling ropes threatened to trip me at every step. Still, I had hope; I was a thing unknown to them, and might yet play them some tricks.
He sent men to take the ropes. That I was ready for, and stopped easily enough. I knew that they expected me to run and would stay with me, letting me have my head until they gathered force, several on each rope, pulling me every way until they mastered me by brute strength. I ran at them instead, charging them every time they approached, running them off and pulling the ropes into a heap by my head. At last they gave up. I watched their leader then, and he watched me.
He set my people upon me. This was the cruelest trial, though he would punish my body ruthlessly before he had done. My heart ached when I saw the two big males come at me, each with a man upon his back. The men had whips in their hands, and sought to herd me to a corner of the corral where others might seize and tie the ropes. But I heard the instructions their master shouted, and understood them as well as they did.
I moved to the center of the ring, and when they approached I snapped and bit at the men's legs and at the necks and manes of my poor brethren. I hated to see them pay the price of their masters' sins, but I had no other choice. They were too strong, fully grown and powerfully built, and could too easily force me into danger. The men cut at me with their whips until I danced and shied under their blows, but I wheeled again and again to the center of the ring, and followed them with determined teeth until I seized one's leg and dragged him nearly from his saddle. Then their leader scowled and waved them back, and I was alone once more in the corral.
At last they came at me together. They put their horses up, wary of the danger should they panic, and summoned all their number. Then they came in together, and from every side – and the chief breaker with them, his whip in hand.
They were too many. But I ran for their leader, determined to make my presence felt. He stood his ground to the last, then slashed at my face with the whip and sprang aside. The pain made me wild and near blinded me. As I shook my head and tried to wheel on him, his men darted in on every side, snatching at the lead ropes. I spun and lunged, and more than one felt my heels or my teeth – but for every man who darted out from under my angry attack, more slipped close at my back and sides, until I was hemmed and raging helplessly. At last they caught up the lines that hung from my halter, and the long struggle began.
They wore me down. With half a dozen on the lines, I could not fight them forever. Finally they dragged me close enough to begin winding the ropes around the two posts they had used to break so many of the others, and then I knew that it was useless to protest. Soon they had me fixed between them, and I ceased my struggles to save my breath for the next battle.
They were wise of me now. They did not wait, as they had with others, to try my temper, but tied my head so short and tight than I had no chance to bite them. I kicked one or two hard enough to send them stumbling off, but they had a cure for that as well. One caught up my leg – he was brave, I admit – and tied it up to hobble me. Then I could neither kick nor bite, but must stand in raging helplessness as their leader approached.
Then he threw it upon me – the saddle, that hated symbol of subjugation. The thick padding and heavy leather struck my back with a hot, loathsome weight that drove me wild with frustration. I thrashed violently, but they had bound me too well; I could only seethe with hatred as they pulled the strap tight and fixed the vile thing to me.
The bit and bridle were worse. They crammed the metal up to my teeth as I snapped and bit wildly. Then one pulled it back hard, and behind me their leader kicked suddenly up into my gut, a hard, ruthless blow that shot the wind out of me and made me gasp and stagger. The bit shot home over my tongue and back behind my teeth, and I found myself gagging on the taste of the metal while I was still staggering for balance. He laughed and slapped my flank.
"Not so canny as you think, ay, you hussy?" I laid my ears flat to my skull. He was an evil creature, swift to hurt and with a joy in it. He watched my rolling eye with satisfaction as the first of his men climbed up into the saddle.
"This 'un'll take some ridin'," he said with a grin. "But we'll show her we knows our business. Take her out, Bill."
They let my foot down and loosened the leads from my halter. When my head was free they jumped loose, and it was well for them that they did. As it was, I snapped hard at the one to my right and caught a mouthful of his arm that set him shrieking. Then the leader cut me smartly with his whip, and the pain and surprise shot me forward. In a moment I found myself in the center of the corral with the loathsome weight of the rider clinging to my back.
I bucked and thrashed in a wild fury; my fear and rage drove all thought before them, and for a space I was no more a thinking creature than the least of my brethren. But at last I mastered myself. I had seen them break the others; the men clung tightly, hard to throw, and few horses managed it. I stopped dead in the center of the corral, feeling the man shift his weight uncomfortably on me. Then I turned and bolted at the others, driving them scrambling over the fence. The one on my back hauled at the bit, yanking at my mouth until the pain sang through me, but my rage burned past it and I kept my course. The leader would have stood his ground, but I went hard for him and at last he must fly, though he slashed the whip across my face hard enough to draw blood. I nearly caught him as he flew over the fence, but his men pulled him to safety. I stood, panting hard, eyeing him with all the hatred in me. Then I threw myself down and rolled.
I caught the rider between the earth and my body. When I stood he lay groaning on the ground. I let them to him for pity, though I was sorely tempted to make an end of him, and they pulled him from the ring and stood together muttering. Then their leader lashed me into a corner with the heavy strike of his whip, and another man sprang into the saddle.