Well, I guess that if it had to start somewhere, it started with Slow. Kinda sounds funny, doesn't it? Slow, I'll admit, is not a very creative name, but, if nothing else, it is descriptive. Slow has always been more than a little bit- well, slow. It was apparent on his name day- when five winters had passed and he'd survived and received his name, and it was still apparent when all this trouble began.
When I was little, I didn't play with Slow too much. He talked funny and ran funny and acted like a dimwit. Heck, he was a dimwit, but my mama never has liked me to use words like that, so I've just always called him Slow. Anyway, he didn't have anyone to look out for him. He couldn't learn a trade, so he was the oldest boy around that didn't have no master. He didn't have no friends, seeing as none of us wanted to be seen playing with him. His mama- I don't much like speaking ill of people, but even I've got to say she was good for nothing.
I hear tell that she was bad from the very start, although I was just a baby when Slow was born, so I didn't see nothing myself. What I do know is that Slow's mama won't tell nobody who the papa is, and she ain't married and never was. My mama always said that I had to be careful about boys, because if I wasn't careful, I'd get myself pregnant and bad things always happen to babies who have mamas who ain't married. Bad things sure happened to Slow, even beyond the fact that he couldn't think like a regular person.
The real problems started with them boys. I had thirteen years at the start of my story, and I considered myself very womanly. The girls my age was always giggling and flirting and acting like they had to catch themselves a husband right away, and I've got to admit, I did a bit of giggling and flirting myself, but for the most part, I couldn't stand acting all silly like that. When it came to boys, I couldn't imagine myself kissing them- much less doing that other thing they seemed to always want.
I didn't even really even like skipping rocks or catching frogs with the boys anymore, because all they ever talked about anymore were those dirty things that I didn't want to know nothing about. I know the boys didn't want to talk or play with me anymore, either. I heard what everyone said about me- that I thought I was too good for them and all that. Well, I figured that they could just talk. I didn't care. Talk couldn't hurt me any.
Of course, I guess I forgot how resourceful boys can be. They thought up whole new ways to hurt me- things they could do that were way worse than just talking about me. I didn't talk to anyone any more- boy or girl- and I guess they just got to hating me, but nobody bothered to tell me.
One day, I was out like always. I guess the people in other villages do things different, but around here, we don't pen our cows. They're free to roam about, doing whatever it is cows do all day, but it certainly does make it difficult for me to get some milk, as I have to wander all over the place with only that pail with me until I find old Cornsilk.
On that day, though, I was feeling especially special, for some reason. I was walking all over the place with a smile on my face. The sun was shining nice and warm, and I was far from any other people, or so I thought. I was trying to keep my eyes open, because even though cows are awful big to hide, Cornsilk has brown and white spots, and sometimes she just blends in with everything around her, strange as that sounds.
Turns out that I wasn't watching for the right sort of thing, though. I never did find that silly cow, but a group of boys found me. I'm not sure what made that day special to bring on the beating they gave me, but once they were done, I was bleeding all over.
Once they were finished and they let me back onto my feet, I have to admit, I was relieved. When they'd first jumped me and held me down, I'd been worried that they was going to rape me. So, when I got away with only physical hurts, I was glad, then, I was ashamed. After all, I'd used to be able to wrestle with the best of them, and even though I was outnumbered when they beat me, I felt like I should have at least put up a little more of a fight.
I didn't want to go back home after that. I just knew that everyone would be talking about me if I went back home right away, with my black eyes and my bruises and the blood on my face. If I went back and acted too proud or too fearless, I'd just get another beating later on. If I acted scared and meek, though- I didn't want to give them boys the satisfaction. Even if I was just play-acting, I didn't want anyone to think he'd gotten the best of me.
So, down to the river I went. I guess the word river isn't all that accurate, as the water's so sluggish, but that's what it's called. When I stared really hard at the clearer parts of the river, I could almost make out my reflection, but only outlines. That didn't help me any. I already knew what shape my head was, what I really wanted to know was how bad they'd beaten me. Maybe it didn't look as bad as it felt.
Nothing ever came of all that time spent staring into the water, though. Eventually, I gave up on that, and splashed in the water to wash some of the dried blood off my face. A lot more dirt came off than blood.
By then, I was feeling a great deal hungry, and I was starting to wish I still had that pail with me so I could go find a cow and get myself some milk. I know it sounds unlikely that I would have just happened across my cow, or anyone else's, before someone spotted me, but that was all wishful thinking on my part. I didn't really think that would work.
After that, I'm not quite sure what happened. I'm guessing I must have dozed off, because all of a sudden it was night, and I was lying right on the ground beside the river. I guess nobody missed me while I was gone all day, or, if they did, they didn't know where to look.
I headed back home, but soon, my stomach was growling again, and although I knew that there was sure to be plenty of food left over from dinner waiting for me at home, I started to wonder what I might find at other people's houses.
My mama always taught me that it's wrong to steal, and the walk home really wasn't so long, but I guess I must have been feeling just a bit vengeful after the way all those boys had beat me. Maybe fate was intervening for me, because if I hadn't noticed the candlelight flickering in that one window, I might never have had my adventure.
I crept up to the window, and realized that I was listening outside Slow's house. Immediately, I recognized the shrill sound of his mother's voice. She said, "Slow ain't too smart, but he does what he's told, and really, that's what counts."
The man who answered sounded awful cultured. He said, "Obedience is valued in my line of business. As for his intelligence, or, should I say, lack of it, I must say that it could help or hinder you. Young men with specialized skills such as the ability to read or play a musical instrument will fetch the best price. Of course, if Slow cannot serve those with finer tastes, a lack of intelligence can help him. If he doesn't think, he doesn't get any ideas, if you understand what I mean."
"I think I do," his mother answered. "So, we can agree on a pretty fair price, then? I need the money, and if you don't treat me right, I can take my business elsewhere, you hear?'
"I'm sure we can work something out," the man told her. "Of course, his age doesn't do him much good. He's too young and dumb to ever fulfill the job of an adult, but he's too old to work for pleasure. This will decrease his value considerably."
"How much money are we talking about?" Slow's mom asked. By now, of course, I knew exactly what they was talking about. This man was a slave dealer or something like that, and Slow's mom was trying to sell her son.
This wouldn't have been the first time I'd known someone to get sold off as a slave. I doubt that there's anyone in the world who hasn't known someone to get down their luck and who needed to sell their children. I've never really liked the idea of good innocent people having to become slaves for their parents, though, probably since I'm still practically a child myself. Besides, I knew Slow's mom didn't need that much money that bad. In a small village, you always know what a person needs, and she didn't need nothing. She was just greedy.
I didn't stay around to listen to the two haggle about Slow's price. I was just so angry by then, I wasn't sure what I'd do. I really do think fate was guiding me that night, even though I never believed in fate before then. I stomped away and up to the nearest tree so I could kick it. That hurt. Then, I walked away, irritable at the pain in my foot and what Slow's mom was doing to him.
And here's the part where it gets interesting, because just when I was thinking about Slow, there he was, right in front of me! I'd been expecting him to be asleep at home, just like everyone else was, and I barely bit my tongue to keep from yelping and letting everyone know that we were both out wandering around at some ridiculous hour of the night. I could just imagine the rumors that would spread if a young girl like me and a boy like Slow were caught together at the middle of the night.
He didn't seem all that surprised to see me, but then again, Slow never looks too surprised. He's always gone through life with his eyes half-closed. He has that dull look to him that all slow people have, although his eyes tend to get a bit of a twinkle when he's really happy and he's smiling that lop-sided smile of his.
Once I got my surprise under control, I asked him, "Slow? What are you doing out here?"
I should have known the simple boy would only give me a simple answer. He said, "I'm going for a walk, Abeni."
"Well, sure," I agreed, trying to think of a better way to ask my question. "Aren't you tired? Isn't it pretty late to be going for a walk?"
Slow shrugged, then he said, "I like walking at night. People aren't so mean to me at night." At that point, I felt so sad for Slow. I'd been cruel to him enough times myself, but after that beating I'd received earlier, I felt like I might just about understand how he felt. Then, I knew that I had to help him.
"How would you like it if you didn't have to walk at night?" I asked. "What if you could get away from everyone who always picks on you?"
Slow looked away, then he shrugged. "I like walking at night," he reasserted. "People aren't so mean to me at night."
"Don't you get tired, walking around at night instead of during the day?" I asked.
"I don't sleep at night anyway," Slow told me. "Mom is talking to the scary man, and I can't sleep while they have the candle burning. I asked her if she could blow out the candle, and she told me to wait outside."
At that point, I lied. My mama would probably be ashamed if I ever told her all this, first how I was going to steal, and then how I lied, but I really meant to help Slow. I said, "Oh, yeah. I just got done talking to your mama, and she wanted you to come with me." I held my hand out to him, then said. "Come on, you just come with me, and when your mama's ready for you to come home, I'll know."
Slow took my hand, and now I really hoped nobody would see us. Bad enough to be seen just talking to him, but if we was holding hands, people would say all sorts of stuff. I admit, sure, I wanted to help Slow, but part of the reason I hurried away so quick is because I didn't want nobody to look outside and see me holding his hand.
I wasn't really sure what to do after we got away from the village. Vaguely, I knew that eventually, we'd need to find a place where we could sleep and eat and everything, but I didn't have no plans or nothing. I was just getting away, and I guess that I figured that eventually we'd be gone long enough that we could come back home and both our problems would be solved. The slave trader would get tired of waiting around and Slow could go back home safely, and everyone would be so scared by my disappearance, they'd all be grateful to have me back and would never beat me again.
Well, if I should have realized anything by that point, it was that things never turn out the way they're planned. Slow and I didn't get too far that night. I wanted to keep moving real fast so that we'd never be found, but Slow kept wanting to sit and rest, and after about an hour, he must have figured out that I didn't plan to ever take him back home, because he started whining and fighting.
I couldn't lie to him again, so I just kind of told part of the truth. I said, "Now listen, Slow. What are you worried about? Don't you realize that I wouldn't do anything to hurt you?"
Slow never was much for listening for reason, and he pouted and stamped his feet and said, "I want to go home. Now!"
"It's not time to go home yet," I said, and really, that wasn't no lie. There really was a time to go home, but that wouldn't be for weeks. "Do you want your mama to get angry at you if you don't do what I say?"
Then, Slow started screaming like a little child, and he threw a temper tantrum. He refused to follow me, and I tried to pull his arm, so he plopped down to the ground. I tried dragging him a while, and he screamed about that, and I just gave up then. I couldn't possibly drag him all night long.
So, I just decided that we'd spend the night right there. I was a bit worried that he'd take off and I'd loose him, but I knew he couldn't find his way back home. Still, I stayed up and watched him until he'd exhausted himself from all his crying and screaming, and he fell asleep. Then, I relaxed.
I've always been a light sleeper, and I counted on that. If Slow woke up before me and started to creep around, I was sure that I'd wake up and talk some sense into him. I must have been extra tired that day, though, which is weird, since I spent a lot of time sleeping by the river. I must have been awful exhausted after first getting beat up and then spending an hour traipsing through the forest.
Anyway, I didn't notice at all that someone had found us until I woke up. Then, I saw two people standing over me- a man and a woman, both of them dressed like robbers, or at least, how I imagined robbers would dress. To be honest, I'd never seen a robber before, but I'd heard stories, and I had a pretty definite idea of how robbers should dress, and these two people pretty much fit that idea.
At that point, I thought I must have had the upper hand. After all, I knew robbers were supposedly capable of some pretty evil things, but in all the stories I'd ever heard, the hero always defeated robbers pretty easily. I'll admit that I'd done some things recently that weren't too heroic, but I figured that I was a lot more heroic than any robber. After all, I'd rescued Slow from a slaver. I guess that I'd stolen Slow, and in a way I was a robber myself, but I'd had good intentions.
Since I supposed nothing bad could happen to me anyway, I sat up, and the man and the woman backed up to give me room. Then, I saw that Slow was sitting nearby with his arms wrapped around his legs. Suddenly, I felt all protective of him, and that made me feel brave.
I stood up, and met the female robber eye-to-eye, since she was the closest to my height and figured the effect would be lost on the taller male robber. "What do you think you're doing in my woods?" I asked her, trying to sound angry and tough.
The female kind of glanced at the male out the corner of her eye, and unfortunately, it wasn't a glance of fear or worry. Then, she met my gaze, and her eyes had the same steel that I'd hoped to fake. Her strength was real, but I stood my ground, if only to avoid the shame of backing down.
"Your woods?" she asked me. "These woods belong to Lord Baback. Excuse me for saying so, but you don't look too much like a duke's daughter." To accent her statement, she looked me up and down, and I was very much aware of the fact that I was dressed pretty ragged.
Still, that didn't mean I was about to back down. After all, she and the man were robbers- or at least, I supposed they were although I'd started to doubt it as soon as she'd started talking real fancy. I hoped it wasn't too late for me to convince the two of them to leave me alone.
"So, maybe they aren't really mine, but that don't mean I don't live here," I told her. "I know I belong here more than you do. Do you think Lord Baback would appreciate knowing that a couple of robbers like yourself are roaming his lands?"
To my horror, the woman started laughing. The man joined her, although his laugher was more like a chuckle or two. Then, she started up with the talking again. "You think we're robbers?" she asked.
If she'd tried harder to deny the accusation or if she'd threatened to kill Slow and me or anything, I'd have known then that they really were robbers. She'd laughed, though, and since I'd been doubting that she really was a robber anyway, I looked down at the ground and said, "No."
The woman and the man looked at one another again, then she asked me, "What's your name, little girl?"
I resented being called a little girl, but I didn't feel like I was much in a position to protest. I thought that maybe I should make up a fake name, but I couldn't think of one fast enough for them not to suspect anything. I told her my real name. "Abeni."
"That's a pretty name," the woman said, but I didn't believe her. She turned to Slow and leaned forward with her hands on her knees, then asked him the same question. Since Slow was pretty scared, he just squeaked, and I answered for him. The woman frowned, then said, "Slow? That's an unusual name."
"Well, that's just the name his mama decided to give him, so why don't you leave us alone now?" I asked. By then, I was feeling pretty annoyed by these visitors.
The man said the first words I'd heard yet, and his voice was very pretty, and very calming. He said, "We didn't mean to disturb you and your boyfriend. We'll leave you alone now."
He'd said the exact thing I hadn't wanted anyone to think. I could feel myself blush while the woman laughed. "It's not like that!" I told them, but I don't think they believed me. Then, I blurted out that Slow and I had run away, and both the woman and the man stopped laughing. I felt bad, because I was sure that now they knew the truth, they'd try to make Slow and me both go home.
Then, the woman surprised me. I guess she'd figured out that Slow wasn't going to speak for himself, because she told me, "My friend and I are sort of runaways, too. Maybe the two of you would be able to show me around a bit, since you're apparently from nearby?"
I thought about the offer. Would they feed us and everything? Maybe I didn't need to worry about what to do next. It sounded almost too good to be true.