Somehow, Devan wasn’t surprised when the long shadow of the mighty minotaur he’d called Tsop (after a son who had died of plague) was cast upon the freshly plowed earth of Devon’s farm.
“So you’re back, then. ” said Devan without looking up.
“Yup. ” said Tsop.
Devan thought about he crude hoe in his hands. It had a sharp edge, and the hard muscle that comes from a lifetime of farming to swing it pretty hard. But he instinctively knew that it would be useless against Tsop. It would be like trying to kill a wild boar by throwing pennies at it.
“Before we go any further, there’s a few things I’d like to know. ” said Devan, playing for time
“Ask away. ” said Tsop amiably. But Devan could tell he had moved closer.
“How did you get the money to buy your freedom?” asked Devan. He heard the massive creature moving behind him. He heard a long low scraping sound. But still he did not turn.
“By losing sleep. ” said Tsop, with a laugh. “I would get up before dawn and go do odd jobs for the locals. I wouldn’t get much pay. Folks around here have never had much use for money. But it added up over time. It took me ten years to do it, but I got my slave price together. It was worth it just to see the look on your face. ”
“So that’s why you were always asleep when I needed you. ” said Devan. “I spent all that time I was calling you lazy and no good, and you were working harder than I was. ”
“More or less, yeah. ”
The eight foot tall beast was closer still now. Devan could hear Tsop breathe, hot and heavy. and smell the beast’s musk. Devan had stopped noticing that smell two weeks after he had bought him, but now it came back to him with razor sharpness. It was, in its deep rich earthiness, a clearer picture of Tsop than you could ever get by looking at him.
But Devan could not turn to look at Tsop. Because, he had to admit to himself, he was too damned scared. Not for his own life, he told himself. But none of his sons were old enough to take over the farm yet, and it scared him to think of all the mouths that would go hungry if he died.
“What have you been doing since you left?” he asked Tsop. Maybe he could outrun the massive beast. He knew Tsop could run fast, but he accelerated slowly and didn’t change directions too well. It might work, if he could get his aging body moving.
Then he could run into town, get those idiot guards from the Market Block to protect him. After all, they’d both sold Tsop to him and then taken their cut from the slave price. That meant they owed Devan some protection for their… fauntly merchandise.
“Well, for a long time, I didn’t do much of anything. ” said Tsop. “I wandered the countryside, happy to be free, not caring too much what happened to me. But a fella can only get by on grazing for so long, and pretty soon I realized I needed money for food and whatnot. So I became a wandering labourer. I would make my way for a while, till I ran out of money, and then I would stop and work a while, then off I would go again. It was a pretty good life, Devan. ”
How dare you use my name, thought an old part of Devan. I’m Master or Boss to you, and don’t you forget it. But there was no fire in it any more. The fellow he’d been back then seemed like a stranger. Why had he been so damned angry all the time? He couldn’t remember.
Devan tried to think of how to say what he had to say without angering the bull. But he was not a man of words, so it still came out “Well if everything was so great, why did you come back?”
Devan heard a metallic clanking and clicking behind him, and his heart leapt into his throat. What was that monster up to behind him up to? He had never felt so frail and helpless. He prayed Tsop’s revenge for years of brutal treatment would be swift and painless, at least.
Was that the creature’s hot breath Devan felt on the back of his neck? He willed himself to at least turn to face his fate like a man. But he was frozen in place.
“I got bored. ” said Tsop. “That kind of life was fine for a while. I got to see a lot of the world that way, and even found more of my kind, ones that weren’t slaves. They taught me the history of our people, and showed me that there were other ways to live than just master and slave. They taught me to be truly free. And that’s why I am back. Now I have a question for you. ”
Tsop walked in front of Devan, and Devan was shocked to see that the minotaur had, of his own accord, harnessed himself to the plow he’d served for many a long year. He smiled at Devon, and said “Do you still need help?”
“But you…. you’re… after the way I treated you… you didn’t come back to kill me? I thought you hated me!”
“No, I don’t hate you, Devan. ” said the bull. “Maybe I did once, but that was a long time ago. You’re not a bad man, Devan. You were always mad, but you were always fair. When you’d yell at me, I would just smile and wait for you to tell me what to do. I knew you didn’t mean much by it, it was just your way. And I saw the love you had for your wife and your kids. So I ignored the insults and the pushing and the cracking of the whip, and concentrated on doing my job.
So sure, I left for a while. I had to, I needed to be free. But I always knew I would be back. I told you that much the day I left this farm. I told you I’d be back. ”
“I guess I thought that meant… something else. ” said Devan. Could he really have been so blind for so long? Could it be that all the time he’d thought he had a slave, he had really had… a friend?
Suddenly Devan felt ashamed. Ashamed of how he’d treated Tsop, ashamed of every bad thought he’d ever had about this gentle creature, and especially ashamed of how he had shouted down his wife and children when they had complained that they missed Tsop.
He was only a slave, a thing, he had told them. Not a person. Those words now stung like poison in Devan’s soul.
Devan felt Tsop’s huge, gentle hand on his shoulder. “So what do you say, Devan? Do you still need someone to help out around here? Pull the plow, carry the bales, keep an eye on the kids?”
Devan smiled and says “You’re damned right I do. It just hasn’t been the same without you, old friend. I do what I can, but… well, it’s great that you’re back. ”
“It’s great to be back… friend. ” said the mighty bull, smiling back at Devan. “Of course, there’s one thing that is going to have to change around here. ”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“From now on, you’re going to have to pay me for my work. ”
Devan laughed. “That’s alright. I still have all the money I got from your slave price!”
And with that, the two friends enjoyed a good long laugh, then put their backs into the day’s work.