------------------CHAPTER FORTYONE - ADAPTION
I didn't understand. "They are like freelancing marauders, or mercenaries even, but they work for themselves. Slave traders who pillage and plunder wherever they wish. They've decided to sell you here and continue on their pirating by ship, to the south."
"No," I cut him off, not fully in shock yet. "No, you have to let me go, you have to let me leave and go back to the Highlands. I can't stay here..." I was shaking my head, eyes stinging at the sides, head spinning wildly in massive confusion. I stared at him in anger, suddenly outraged.
"I do not belong here, and you cannot keep us!"
He took an involuntary step back, though kept calm, regarding me with more patience than I possessed myself. "Hush, for God's sake before they think you've gone mad and they drag you away!" I would have liked to see who he was making reference to...let them come and try, I figured. I had a bloody thing or two about it myself.
"Who are you?" I asked between clenched teeth. "Who are you to tell me to keep calm? Have you been ripped from your home and beaten, starved, and forced against your will to some unknown place where some pompous ass finds it his right to call you a slave? I think not, you arrogant bastard!" I turned on my heel at that, fully flustered, and stomped into the canvas tent where Kora and two women were crouched on the floor, eyes wide in horror at my outburst. I gave them a dirty look and flopped down across from them on a dirty straw mattress, reaching my arms out to Kora, who had been in the embrace of one of the women. I pulled her into my lap and laid my head on hers, then began to rock her gently.
"I will get us home soon baby, I promise," I whispered, swallowing vainly at the ball of turmoil crawling up my throat. Try I would, but to what avail? I needed to think logically, I supposed, though coherent and rational thought were far off in such circumstances as these. There were not too many options in any case, these being limited to escape and/or violence, the former impossible and latter highly unfavorable. No, escape was not something to be considered, especially with Kora's well-being to think of. I could most likely manage to remove myself from the settlement, as all the woman did during the day was sewing, mending, cooking, and that sort of mindless work that could be found for us to do til we were presumably sold or even married off. Then what? Stealing a horse would be difficult and acquiring food to last me a few weeks even more so. But to do all this for Kora as well? Perhaps the best idea was to sit and wait. Though for what?
I sighed deeply, squeezing my eyes shut to chase off the insanity trying to worm its way in. Kora's weight, now dead, sagged in my arms and I assumed her to be sleeping. Extremely carefully, I managed to lay her down on the mattress without waking her -not an easy task- and then curled my body around hers, back to the women purposely.
Now was not the time to lose my composure, I knew, though the thin threads holding me together threatened to unravel and spill out my soul at any moment. Such a thing life was, or turned out to be when one didn't pause to admire the beauty of it. I was still alive and well -more or less, really- and now had Kora to look after as well as my own self, and with that I took the frustration I felt and vowed to channel it into energy to find a way home, to the Selkirk settlement, and Ragnarok. The longhouse we shared would be waiting, the inside smelling of jasmine, masculinity, and fragrant wood. The bathhouse, oh, I missed that terribly, the hot pool soothing my body of aches on cold winter nights. It was all mine once, but now it seemed so far off, like a dream life. I was once Lillius the Gypsy, innocently smug consort to the fearless Viking Ragnarok, destined to carve out a life of their own in the brutal Highlands. This would still be I fervently thought, admiring the brilliant red mass of hair Kora had, so much like her mother's. I could not imagine living any other way, or any other place. I felt that with Ragnarok was where I belonged now, especially with the added factor that I was pregnant with his child. At the thought, a small flicker of hope lit somewhere inside me, and I exhaled sharply. I could see the mountains, the landscapes, taste the salt of the sea to the south of the settlement, reach out and run my hands through his thick and glossy black hair... Yes, that was my home, and I would return there if it killed me.
The sun had begun to rise, but not fully, just so there was enough light to see the world come alive and a small chill still lurked in the shadows. Dark clouds hung all around and threatened rain, though it held off for the moment. I didn't remember falling asleep at all, and had wasted a day it seemed. I retracted my head back into the tent, put off by the prospect of rain and unable to shake the cold from my bones. I had woke suddenly, jolting upright in panic, and frozen from the inside out. Kora was sound asleep, as were the women we shared the tent with. Looking for something to wear, I went over to and knelt in front of a small basket that had been provided for us; in it were a few shawls and dresses for warm and cool weather alike. I found a crumpled wool dress with long sleeves and small carved buttons in the shape of birds. They were wooden I saw, and I smiled briefly at the workmanship. A lot of fine detail there was for such a simple garment. I shrugged the thing on over my head with ease, for it was way too big, then tied it at the waist with a length of cord meant as such and with a growing sense of determination stumbled out of the tent. What I was searching for, I did not know. There were dozens of slave tents like the one I was sharing, though about a third of them had been torn down since our arrival. In the midst of every four or five there was a small fire pit where women were stoking fires to boil water and presumably cook a breakfast of sorts. Reminded of my own hunger, my stomach emitted a very rude and loud growl, then back-flipped once or twice to add to effect. Laying a hand on my stomach to stifle the feeling, I set out in my explorations, stunned that curiosity hadn't gotten the best of me sooner. The settlement of Kavanaugh it was called I remembered, and it was a bustling little community from the looks of it. The slaves were all rising now, before the sun even, to start the day's catalogue of work: cooking, cleaning, garment washing (women were lugging large wicker-baskets overflowing with fabrics westward, to a small pool of freshwater that came from a river and ran out into the sea), minding of the animals and children, water-fetching, gardening, and even the tear-down and erection of new buildings.
It was so much to take it all at once that I must have stood there for several minutes observing everything. Slowly, testing my freedom, I began to weave my way through the buildings, trying to get a better idea of how Kavanaugh was laid out. North and east there were fenced-in pastures for keeping the cows, goats, horses, chickens, and other miscellaneous animals the people here had collected and then beyond them the cultivation fields stretched on, growing herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Even further north there was a never-ending expanse of deeply wooded area where mushrooms were gathered, as well as wood for the fires and lumber for building and through it had been the path we travelled to arrive here. Over east was the river and three separate bathhouses, one for men and one for women alone, and another for slaves. There were two pools of sun-warmed water the river fed; the higher was used for the collection of water dedicated to cooking and cleaning, and the other for laundering. Then there was the settlement itself, which appeared to consist of dozens of homes for farmers and settlers, the 'Big House', which was where the clan's leader, Morder lived with his family, a giant hall for celebrations and meetings, a few smoke sheds, storage sheds, tents for the slaves, a giant bonfire pit, and stables. If one faced south, they were confronted with a never ending deep blue mass of sea that stretched out and collided with the horizon. The cliffs the village was perched on dropped off extremely abruptly; nearly a hundred feet down into the calm waters below. A trail led off east and if followed it lead down to the beach where the harbor was, and though it was small it stayed busy enough. The trail always had traffic on it, men with horses, wagons stuffed full of new shipments and such. It took me a good while to walk around the boundaries of the place and when I returned to the small slave district, the sun was shining.
It didn't last long. While I enjoyed the morning's brief freedom, the moment I was back in vicinity to the slaves and someone of higher authority noticed me ambling with nothing to busy myself with, I was set to work. A large, blob-like woman came to find me sitting in the dirt outside of my tent braiding stray cords together.
"Get you to your feet, little one," she piped, smiling with nearly all her teeth. I rose slowly, rudely gawking at her body size. She was huge, like a perfectly round pig that had it's legs replaced with a humans. It was slightly funny to see how she moved about, seemingly so graceful yet so obese and clumsy. She wore a long wool dress the same as mine with a cream-coloured apron over it I noticed, probably made of more fabric than my dress and then some. "By god, are you scrawny enough?" She clucked, pulling at my dress with her chubby hand. I indignantly squirmed away, frowning at her.
"I hardly think it's of any interest," I mumbled.
"Well no, its not, I'm just sayin' is all. Are you strong at least?"
I blinked at her.
"Well, you will do, in any case," she said, nodding to herself. "I am Golda. You'll be taking your instruction from me then, as it is. If you've any problems, address me. Now, gather your wits and we'll get you started."
I followed her through the camps, now booming with life. Breakfast was now being cooked -and presumably served, my grumbling stomach told me- while everyone readied themselves for the day.
I was set to gathering laundry using an extremely large and sturdy wicker basket Golda provided to me after barking her orders: "Collect what you can carry," she snapped with another distasteful look at my small figure, "and then lug it to the river on the far side. You'll be knowing where I mean, I'm assuming. So, wash it all when you're there and wring it out as best as you can. Fold 'em up and bring 'em back, and be a' might careful with them, for they belong to Morder's son and are fair expensive."
I started at that. The reminder of Rameleth sent a little wave of nervousness through me, but I expelled it with a sharp inhalation of fresh air. The chubby woman raised an eyebrow, but went on with her air of authority. "Bring them back and set them behind the Big House, on the line outside Rameleth's lodge. Then take the other full baskets in front of the house away and do the same. Shouldn't take you quite til midday" -she shot a look up at the sky, calculating the time of day- "and when you're done, come back to your area. I'll be waitin', you hear?"
"Yes," I mumbled, sulking slightly like a child that being forced to do something they would much rather not. I huffed, heaving the heavy basket up into my arms and watching Golda's huge posterior bounce away in a cloud of starchy wool. I glared after her, then turned and began weaving my way through the tents towards the river.
Most of the slaves seemed to pair up, or be in groups of three. It seemed as though everyone knew each other, or had at least introduced themselves with the intention of forming a camaraderie to ward off loneliness. And what else were we to do? I was so wrapped up in my own grief I wished not to even communicate with others. As if that were doing any more good than being alone on my own accord, I thought, pausing briefly to adjust the basket.
The area where the washing was done was a nice little setting. The pool was carved out into a small, rocky cove, lush grass to kneel on and large boulders to lay out the heavier garments. As I approached there was another woman there in the small clearing, dressed in a deep maroon wool dress crouching on the bank of the pool, vigorously scrubbing and splashing water around. She must have heard me coming, for she stopped what she was doing and turned to look, raising a wet hand to her face to shove the hair away from her eyes. Her brown hair was all over, sweaty from exertion. Her face was quite lovely I noticed, her smile pleasant and warm. She looked the same age as I, perhaps a year or two younger though her figure looked as if it had retained some of it's baby fat. I returned her smile and she went back to her work, silent but content it seemed.
I ambled over, dropping to my knees in the grass with the basket beside me. I shook it out; sure enough, all men's clothes came tumbling out. I scowled, narrowing my eyes with distaste. Why was this job not assigned to his regular slaves?
"Rameleth's things," the woman said, startling me. I looked at her in question. "You can tell from the colours." Looking down at the garments, I noticed they were all shirts made of dark wool, green and navy, with a brilliant red length of fabric sewn across the bottom. Must be symbolic of rank, I figured.
"He is red, his father is gold, and his younger brother is white," she went on, shaking out a large shirt lined with red as well. I cocked my head slightly. "I'm Semele, and I work for their family, Rameleth especially. I was a maid to his first wife, and remained here after she returned home, to Germany."
"You're his slave, then?" I asked stupidly, taking a shirt and soaking it in the warm pool of murky but presumably clean water. I glanced around the banks for soap; Semele picked up a small cake and handed it to me. It smelled strongly of mint and lye.
"Yes, sort-of. And I see now you are, too."
"What?" I said suddenly, letting go of the shirt and losing it in the water. I scrambled after it, splashing elbow-deep in the water to retrieve it. I groped madly with my left arm trying to keep balance using my right; the fabric skimmed over my hand and wrist, feeling much like the caress of another hand, involuntarily making my heart skip.