Easy Work, Tough Decision
“You, come over here and open your mouth.”
Socks looked up from the kill-time task he’d spent most of the morning on, then obediently trotted over to the human who’d spoken. The paid farmhand was sitting on a fence, bringing him up to eye level with the half-centaur, half-horse hybrid. Born and bred a slave, the son of an unwilling debt-worker, Socks was used to obeying orders from humans, thinking nothing of the unusual instructions. Sure, the farmhand might be planning to play a cruel joke on him, some of them did, but that was their right.
He knew something was up the moment the man pulled a bridle from behind his back, pushing the bit into his open mouth and pulling the crownpiece over his smallish ears, but making a fuss about it wasn’t going to help him any. He had spent his entire life in his master’s possession and those years had been more than enough to convince him that obeying was a lot safer than not doing so. It was not a life he wished for anyone, other than maybe his human masters, but it was the life he’d been given and he didn’t intend to throw it away.
There was no future for him away from the ranch, anyway. If he somehow would manage to escape, he’d be found by his mother’s people, and they would return him to his master to be beaten for running off. Sure, he’d heard of a place far away where slavery was forbidden — his master had spoken of its people with disgust as he’d arrived back from whatever had transpired at that far-off border. Many of the slaves that had left with their master hadn’t returned, and only a single one had been added to their numbers. If the judgement had been left up to Socks, he’d have said the odd winged reindeer was more trouble than he was worth. Any time they managed to persuade the strange slave to work it was through violence, and as soon as the beatings stopped so did the reindeer. Anything he could do a spectre-aeries could do just as well, and the horned gryphonids didn’t typically resist nearly as much.
Not that judgement of anything would ever have been left up to a slave.
The farmhand who’d bridled him lead him towards the stables like a common horse, a ridiculous precaution in its own right, not that he was going to offer his opinion on the humans’ actions. He’d never been anything but obedient, surely they ought to have expected him to come along on his own. A chill crept along his spine, and he forced himself to ignore it. Doubtlessly whatever was up was not something he would like, since it seemed to be a task too important to be left to the slaves. Usually that meant a slave was going to get hurt in the process. As they rounded a corner he saw a male akenaavayia with short-cropped blonde and violet-red hair lead one of the master’s riding horses out of the stable, and caught a whiff of a scent which tugged at his equine instincts.
For a few moments, he perked his ears and flagged his tail, feeling the farmhand give him slightly more rein as his steps grew lighter. Then his brain caught up with his instinctive response, sorting what information he had. They were expecting him to possibly protest about what they were going to ask of him. A mare in heat just so happened to be lead out of the stable as he was being lead around it. Centaur-hybrid slaves were valuable to their owners, even unable to complete many tasks due to their body structure, because the free centaurs would gladly return them to their owners. There weren’t currently any centaurs working off debt at the ranch, nor had there been any since Socks’s mother, and he was the only remaining hybrid at the ranch.
He slowed down, dragging his hooves. It seemed to him that what his masters had in mind was to use him to sire more slaves like him, and if that was the case, he’d have no part of it. His life was not one he’d wish on anyone. But openly disobeying before he knew for sure might unneccesarily land him in trouble. Immediately the farmhand was there, jerking the reins, leading him in the same direction the mare had gone.
The buckskin mare had been lead into the narrow pathway between two sturdy-fenced pastures, the akenaavayia slave standing in front of her with one hand gently resting on her neck. The horse’s ears flicked as she caught the sound of his hooves, and she craned her head around to look at him until her handler tugged at the leadrope. Even so, she must have liked what she’d seen, for she whinnied, raising her tail to the side, hind legs splayed. Again the scent of willing mare teased his nostrils, and he found himself raising his upper lip in flehmen before he could think to fight the instinct, not to speak of the effect it had on the sheath that swung between his legs or its contents.
His handler tugged at the reins, giving him what might have been intended as a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Easy work for you today, big guy. The boss wants to increase his workforce, and you’re the lucky boy who gets to do the honors.”
He was surprised at the familiar tone the man took with him, and knew it couldn’t last, not in face of what he was going to do. With a grunt, he shifted his weight backwards, craning his neck to try and avoid the worst of the pressure from the bit as he sat down on his haunches.
“Move, horse!” The pair of paid farmhands that had been waiting by the fence rushed over, each holding a long, flexible willow branch.
A shudder ran through his body as the improvised crops hit his rump, and he reached up, fumbling with the bridle’s tiny buckles to try and get it off his head. That earned him a painful smack of the reins’ ends across the muzzle that made him see stars.
“Get on ‘er, boy,” the man holding his reins ordered, tugging at his mouth again, but still displaying more patience than his colleagues, treating Socks more like a misbehaving horse than a misbehaving slave. “It’ll only take a minute.”
He shook his head, shifting even more of his weight back onto his doubled-up hind legs. If they wanted him to breed that mare, they’d have to force him every step of the way. Oh, they persisted in lashing him until their willow switches finally snapped, and the man in front of him kept tugging at the reins, trying to pull him forward, and smacking his nose anytime he raised his hands to try and ease the pressure of the bit, but he stood his ground. Three men simply could not easily move nearly a ton of unwilling horse, and he was used to getting beaten.
Someone sent a slave for some lengths of rope, and the centaur hybrid waited with them, his steel grey coat dark and wet with sweat, as the roe deer carried out her task. She had to go twice to get both of the long ropes they’d asked for, and one of them cuffed her for causing the delay. It made Socks flatten his ears, guilt briefly stinging his conscience. But if he didn’t refuse, he’d have more than that to be guilty about starting in a year’s time.
He watched nervously as the end of each rope was fastened to the fenceposts on either side of the mare’s rump, shifting off his haunches as the farmhands came closer, kicking at them and at the ropes when they crossed behind him. He didn’t hit, and the smack across the nose it earned him made him lose his breath and sink onto his knees for a moment.
The ropes burned against his skin as they were crossed and tightened behind him, rubbing his fur loose. Involuntarily, he shifted his hind legs forward, further in under his sturdy body, trying to get away. But the ropes followed, inching him forward another foot before he managed to shift back against them and once again sit on his haunches. The mare was starting to get impatient, too, keeping her handler busy simply with keeping her still.
“You!” shouted one of the men, addressing a slave who was cleaning tack in the sun outside the nearest stable door. “Go get the boss, tell ‘im we’re having trouble with the big one.”
The farmhand barely had time to finish speaking before the young ferret slunk through the door, on its way to hang the tack and go find its master. Socks felt sorry for the mustelid; drawing the ranch owner’s attention as a slave was never particularly safe, as the man was known both to punish the bearer of bad news and to beat any slave who had the guts to interrupt what he was doing, and he’d usually do so before bothering to find out whether there was a legit reason for the interruption. Again he steeled himself against any feelings of guilt by reminding himself that any son or daughter of his would be doomed to live the kind of life he had lived, and he certainly didn’t want to be the one responsible for their misery.
He continued to lean his weight back against the ropes, mostly trapping them underneath his great bulk and offering the farmhands a very awkward angle to pull in. Sooner or later they’d probably bring in slaves to hold the ropes, but for now they were holding on, keeping him where he was until their employer could arrive and decide what should be done about the troublesome slave. They hadn’t really expected him to give them much trouble, knowing him as a generally calm and obedient slave.
When his master arrived, the human man was visibly agitated, and he thought he saw the ferret move more stiffly than before as it returned to its original task. As usual, the rancher carried with him a polished mahoghany cane, an instrument which all slaves at the ranch learned to fear early in their lives.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“The slave won’t do it, sir. He refuses to budge.”
“What kind of nonsense is this? You! Were you not told to cover the mare?”
“Yes, master,” Socks muttered, teeth grinding.
“So what are you doing sitting there like an addled hound? Move it!”
Sitting back on his haunches Socks had no chance of sidestepping when his owner brought down the dense wooden cane across his hind quarters, but the message was clear enough. He sat through another three blows, then rose, worried that the beating might seriously damage his spine. A horse with a bad back was a horse who served best feeding the dogs and the slaves who required some meat in their diets. At least when he stood up chances were his hips and the fleshy parts of his rump would take most of the impact.
Under their employer’s watchful eye the farmhands grew even more vigorous in their attempts to move Socks toward the mare, the one at his bridle practically hanging from the reins and the rope burning against the backs of his thighs. He opened his mouth wide in an attempt to get away from the pressure of the bit, then tensed his neck and threw himself backwards and to the side, forcing the ropes to slacken as his weight sent the farmhands holding the ends of them stumbling a couple of steps forward. Thankfully the bridle they’d put on him was one that had a sensible bit, and while the pressure was uncomfortable it didn’t really hurt him like a more severe one could have.
Almost casually he managed to get a hoof over the ropes that still ran behind his legs before they were once again tightened.
“Enough of this! I want slaves holding those ropes, and I want to see progress!” The cane smacked painfully across the back of the leg outside the ropes, a few inches above the fetlock, and Socks pulled it up towards his belly with a startled neigh. “Stop your squirming and fighting or so help me, I will lash your hide to ribbons, and let the dogs clean your wounds, you ungrateful nag!”
Socks shuddered, standing on three legs still. A few times he’d seen the kind of “help” his master’s hounds provided when it came to cleaning wounds. He was pretty sure they wouldn’t be allowed to seriously harm him, not enough to permanently decrease his utility, but that if anything made the prospect even less appealing. If his kind had been easy to come by, his master wouldn’t have bothered to give him that warning.
But he knew his master’s ways, and knew to take that warning seriously. That didn’t mean he didn’t still intend to stand his ground. With a sigh, he planted all four hooves, keeping most of his weight off his still-aching hind leg. For someone who seemed to never lift a finger to do anything more productive or exerting than punish slaves, his owner was surprisingly strong, and that cane didn’t exactly soften the blows.
“So you’re going to cooperate now?” The man sounded and looked nothing if not smug.
“No, master,” he replied, feeling his heart race, but somehow managing to keep his voice steady, its tone respectful even when the message wasn’t.
His heart sank when the slaves the rancher had sent for arrived; six of the strongest on the estate that were not working too far off to be conveniently called back. One of them was sent in to adjust the ropes, and while he lashed his thin black tail, he didn’t kick. It wasn’t the akenaavayia’s fault that he was being treated this way, and an unlucky hit might mean the slave was suddenly considered expendable.
With the ropes high enough that he could no longer easily sit on them, and enough muscle at the ends of them to move his large frame, Socks found his hooves slowly sliding across the dust, try as he might to stay put. The farmhand holding the reins was now only preventing him from turning around, rather than trying to drag him forward. He was going forward anyway, whether he liked it or not.
They could force him forward, but they could certainly not force him to get onto the willing mare’s back, and there was — just barely — enough space there to squeeze by the buckskin riding horse. He continued to resist as he was forced forward, his tail pressed down in response to the blows that hailed across his rump, until his shoulders were between the first set of fenceposts.
Then, he flagged his tail, lifted his legs high, and walked forward with his upper lip lifted. Let them think that being this close to the mare was washing away his protests, not merely making him slightly heady and making the pole of flesh normally hidden in his sheath grow and harden. If he’d been a slave to his instincts, he’d never have survived this long as a slave to his human masters.
When the farmhand holding his reins started jogging to keep up and in front of him, there being no space to speak of to his side, he leapt forward, shouldering the man down while he tried to keep from trampling him, and pushed past the mare and the slave holding her leadrope.
He trotted some twenty yards on his aching leg, then stopped and turned, reins hanging straight down from his mouth, waiting for his handler to catch up. Not so much because he wanted to be caught as because he didn’t have much of any choice in the matter. Running off would only cause him more pain.
Something caught his attention, though, and he twisted his upper torso towards the driveway up to the ranch which was visible around the stable building from his current vantage point. Tossing his head up and down to focus, he finally managed to puzzle out that this was a beautiful horse, worth many times any slave or livestock on the ranch, and its rider. No details were visible at such a distance, but he could see that the horse moved with a strange flowing gait the like of which he’d never seen before. Neither, it seemed, had the ranch’s common horses, for the ones in the pastures closest to the road were running around their enclosure, distressed by the unfamiliar sight.
By the time he’d been lead back past the amorous mare and once again dug his hooves into the ground, a mountain rat which Socks recognized as one of the house slaves came bounding towards their master.
“Ma-master, sir!” she squeaked before she’d even had the time to take a single deep breath. “The Mistress of the House requests the master’s presence. A traveller arrived, and madam said to tell the master that madam intends to offer the guest hospitality.”
“Very well,” the rancher growled, waving a dismissal to the slaves. “Go back to your work, we will finish this in the morning. Tie and hobble him out back and make sure he has no feed or water.”
Nobody needed to ask who their master referred to, and in short order Socks was being lead away, the mare was being returned to the stable, and the slaves who’d been called away from their tasks had dispersed.
There’d be no sympathy to be had from the farmhand who lead him to the small cobbled yard where his master usually administered punishment to slaves who’d seriously crossed him. Nor would there be any help to be expected from his fellow slaves. Their master had been unusually kind to warn him, and yet he’d chosen not to heed the warning. The task he’d refused to do hadn’t been dangerous, not even unpleasant. No, in their eyes he had only himself to blame.
And though being left outside with no access to food or water was bad, once his master managed to slip away from his wife, it was going to be that much worse. There was a very real risk that once his master was certain there would be at least one replacement, he was going to be considered more trouble than he was worth. Maybe his remains would go to feed that good-for-nothing reindeer, if it ever behaved well enough to be given a share.
Wouldn’t that be irony?