The door to the front office opened with a creak, stirring me out of a deep sleep. Then the cloth covering the witchlight, dropped away, flooding the room in half-light. I wanted to whimper, to roll away and cover my eyes with my paws, but I knew what response that would bring. Despite the sleep lingering in my bones, I forced myself up onto my knees and bowed my head. I didn’t turn my head to watch, but I could hear the other two slaves doing the same.
The slaver’s hindfalls whispered across the stone as she walked. “I know it’s early,” she admitted, “but the sooner you’re on-site, the better the price you’ll fetch. Come, come.” She bent at the waist and slipped a pair of iron manacles joined to a bar half a meter long. “Put this on, arms behind your back.” Then she walked past, passing another set each to the other two slaves. I took the contraption and, despite the confines of the cage, worked the manacles behind my back. Putting the first loop around one wrist was simple enough, but I banged my head into the top of the cage as I struggled to close the second by feel alone. I let out a whine, quickly stilling myself as the raccoon approached.
Her short staff rattled the top of the cage. “Is there a problem?” she asked coolly, folding her arms across her chest. She held her rod loosely in one paw, bouncing it lightly against her shoulder.
I ducked my head reflexively. “No, master.”
She paused, then stepped back. “Good.” A moment later, she knelt and unlocked the door to my cage, then quickly rose and moved on. “Out, rise, and stand there, single-file,” she called out as she walked to the next cage in the line, She gestured towards the rear exit out of the back room, then turned her attention back to the lynx one cage removed.
By the time I had crawled out of the waist-high cage and risen to my hinds, my shoulders were already somewhat sore and my wrists hurt from the metal rubbing against the fur. I tried to stretch out some of my lingering weariness and soreness, but the bar holding the manacles together made moving a challenge; they were too close to be able to bring my arms forward, but too far apart to lock my fingers. Clever design, I admitted to myself as I tried to ignore what I couldn’t resolve. I waited for the two other slaves to take up a position in front of the rear door, then fell in behind them. The slaver worked the heavy lock, then released it, and a cool breeze from outside blowing into the room as the door swung wide. Then, for the first time in almost a week, I stepped back outside the confines of the Slavers’ Guildhall.
Outside, the air was fresh and crisp, such a shocking change from the stale and faintly fetid air in that back room that I quickly felt a little lightheaded. A chill breeze made my fur stand on end and had me longing for the coat I’d left behind with the rest of my life. Overhead, the sun hadn’t yet risen, but the sky was as clear as a mountain stream, a deep and vivid blue just beginning to lighten in the distance. A number of stars shone overhead, and Matska and Oshka were still setting to the west, though little Korski had long since raced past the horizon. On a day like today, I mused, I could have been huddled up under a thick cotton quilt, sipping hot mulled cider and listening to Anya and Nadzia play in the common room, while Mother worked in the kitchen. I could have gone out hunting for late-blooming leeks and early lettuces, looking forward to an evening snowfall. For a few moments, I let the memories play themselves out in my mind, a smile rising to my muzzle for the first time in days.
Then I blinked, and my gaze fell gaze back down to earth; such thoughts hadn’t disturbed me in four or five days now, and today of all days was no time to lament what might have been. Half a block down the street, Milos stood waiting in front of a covered wagon, his arms crossed behind his back, the reins to pair of drays hitched to the cart held loosely in one paw. That is my future, I reminded myself, staring at the nude wolf and fighting down the knot of fear in my stomach. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to look forward to standing in the cold, waiting for orders.
As the slaver passed me to lock the back door, she paused and narrowed her eyes in my direction. She said nothing, but despite myself, I shamefully ducked my head, lowering my gaze to the ground. My ears and cheeks burned with embarrassment; I hadn’t even had to speak and she knew my mind had been wandering. Fortunately, she only swatted my shoulder with her paw as she strode to the head of the line. She raised her arm in a wave, and Milos bowed his head and dropped to his knees in response.
“Follow,” the slaver said to us again, then led us to the cart, motioning us towards its back. “Up inside, all of you. Get comfortable; the ride may not be rough but it is long, and the better shape you’re in when you arrive, the more you’ll be worth come nightfall.” She motioned to the wolf as she took the reins from him. “Milos, assist, then join me.” The wolf nodded again, then opened a door to the back of the wagon and unfolded a short ramp. Without my arms to steady me, walking the inclined surface proved trickier than I thought it would be, but Milos’ grip on my shoulder kept me steady enough that, when I did stumble, I was already inside.
A thin layer of fresh hay covered the wooden floor, but underneath were iron bars that joined similar rods set into the walls and ceiling, turning the cart into a mobile cage. A few small windows let in light from the outside, but the hour was early enough that it felt like stepping back into night-time. A number of chains rattled on the floor as I shifted to make myself as comfortable as I could. There was no room to stand, barely room to kneel, and so I sat, cross-legged, with my back to the wall, trapping the manacles behind me. The wolf and lynx did the same, the three of us looking around awkwardly, hoping the mostly-darkness would spare us having to make eye contact.
Once we were settled, Milos looked at each of us in turn. His expression was unreadable in the dim light, but his silver eyes glittered as he turned to each of us, nodding. When he faced me, he paused a moment, then unmistakably winked before closing the door. The interior of the wagon dropped into near-total darkness as the latch fell into place. A few seconds later, the cart lurched into motion as the drays responded to the crack of a whip, jerking into a trot. A few seconds later, the slaver’s voice called out from the front of the wagon, “Next stop, the auctionhouse.”