This chapter was red-moused by Jilliane. Thanks, Jilliane, and thanks to all who have read this story so far. Some reviews would be nice.
Strange Lands Chapter 3
I woke on my spot on the bench, sore and sweaty. I could hear the sound of screaming in the near distance. It was growing louder the longer I sat there. I muttered to myself, "Bene, don't just sit here like a lump, fix the morning meal." More loudly I said, "Come help me, Jona."
That task kept me and my brother occupied while Per, Bridgerit and Ama Ri discussed what we could do to keep us out of the Barba Lord's clutches. Most of what they said was ridiculous. Jona, who was half-heartedly helping me, but mostly listening to them, scoffed several times at Ama Ri's more vocal protestations that Per should consider sending us over the embankments to let us find our own way. Ama Ri hated all of us children brought to her door by Per's unfortunate predilection to foreigners. The feeling was even on my slate. I hated her just as much.
When I was frying the last of the bread, we heard shouting just up the cobbled street. Anjit, the baker's boy, ran into our shop, his face bloodied from a cut in his hair, his robes torn. I had kept the saffron curtain open between the shop and the kitchen to let out the smoke. All of us women of age, hastily donned our cowls, covering our faces over AmaRi's outraged screeches. His breaths coming in gasps, Anjit said, "They're here! Maister Dawud, you must hide your daughters and your boy!"
I watched in horror as Anjit, my one time hope, before he contracted for the dowried girl, fell to the floor of our shop, an arrow sticking out of his back. I rushed to him, discarding the platter of bread to Jona's outstretched hands, and looked at the wound. The arrow was not deep. It had hit his rib and lodged there. I looked to Per in anguish and he came to my aid. He said, "Hold him firmly, Bene, you too, Bridge, at his feet. This will hurt him a great deal."
Per's sure hand gave a slow tug to the shaft. When it would not budge, he rocked it back and forth to loosen it from the bone. Anjit screamed and I took of my cowl and rolled it hastily so that he could bite it. I smoothed my fingers through his dark, sleek hair, and bit back my tears for him. He did not need me to add my bitter salt to his wounds. Bridgerit stared at my fingers, but said nothing, her gaze speculative. I looked away from her. I knew it was foolish of me to want more, because of my plainness and strange ways, but I did.
Per finally worked the arrow's tip out and he gave a sharp tug. It popped free and the wound began bleeding. Per barked impatiently, "Ri, bring me some of that undyed muslin you bought on the seven-day market, and tear it into strips. And tell Secunda to come out here. I have need of her aid."
With his uncharacteristic commanding tone and air of danger, she dared not protest the loss of the cloth. She fled the room, followed by the littles and Uli. Per placed his hand over the wound and the blood flow slowed to a sluggish trickle. I blinked away the tears that had collected during the process, and surreptitiously wiped my face with the portion of my cowl left unmangled.
When Ama Ri returned with the linen strips, we helped Anjit to sit. Per told us both sharply, "See to the littles' breakfast in the kitchen. We will take care of your hero, Bene."
I fumed at Per's softly teasing tone. I had hoped my regard for Anjit had gone unnoticed in the daily bustle of our home. I should have known that Per would see what I tried to hide from him.
I fetched the yogurt and berries that Ama Ri had bought the day before and set the littles to eating while Bridgerit listened at the door behind the now closed saffron curtain. I could tell that it chafed her, this captivity in the cramped family quarters. She was used to the freer air of the cloister, and the attentions of Cernu's appreciative priests. Bridgerit served them in all ways in the temple. She acted as mother to the younger priests that came from the countryside, and acted as lover to the older priests who needed the succor of her body to ease their minds from their arcane studies. In her free time, she was able to read, and discuss, and be everything that I had wanted to be. It had all been denied me with my plain looks and unfettered air. With these thoughts in my mind I said too sharply, "Bridgerit, make yourself useful."
She turned to me, her expression blank with the frighteningly cold look of a temple priestess. "Of course, sister."
I cursed under my breath and was turning to tell her I was sorry for my harshness, when we heard Ama Ri scream and heavy blows falling. I rushed out into the fray, pausing only long enough to see Secunda go under the sword of an iron-clad Barba. Unthinking, I rushed to her body, and received a blow to my head for my efforts, which knocked me to my knees. When I struggled to get up, to see who my attacker was, a hand held me down. It was Anjit's, and I looked into his pleading face. "Please, Lady, you must not fight."
I was protesting his use of such a high term for me; I was still a stupid young girl, when a metal-shod foot crashed down on his neck. I watched the life flee from his body, his hand becoming slack on my thigh as he died. My wail joined the noise of battle. After that, events came in soft, horrifying spurts to my vision. I watched as one man secured Per's arms behind his back, another kicked Ama Ri into the street with his steel shod foot and a third rounded up the howling littles and the others. I remember Jona's face covered with soot, tears streaking down his soft cheeks. Another captor pulled me by my hair to a stand and I spat in his face. He slapped me with a hand covered in metal and I saw the starry field of The Lady's hair before total blackness overtook me.
I woke as I was slung over the side of a mule drawn cart, my head aching, my heart dead. Per lay on his side, his hands bound, his expression bleak. Ama Ri sat beside him, fussing with the littles and being hounded by Uli, who had a gash across his chest and a blackening eye. Bridgerit sat beside me, unscathed, but trembling. She had dropped her cowl and her black hair flew behind her in the early morning breeze. Jona squeezed my hand, his brown eyes eating up his face. I struggled to sit up, and my father's concubine, the foreign hosteller aided me. With a twitch of her fingers, she warded herself from the bad spirits that were said to surround me and looked sharply at my condition. She ran her finger over my face, lightly tracing a gash on my cheek. "You'll have a mark from that."
I shivered under her gaze, and said nothing.
The cart stopped several more times, and we heard the clash of battle at each jerking halt. More miserable faces and wounded bodies joined us until the cart finally came to the middle square, the center of our town. One of the Barba said something in a trilling, liquid language and motioned for us to exit the cart. Per and I were the last to leave. I held his arm and he leaned heavily on me as he made a stumbling effort to move. The Barba who had bade us all to leave, hit Per with the flat of his sword, catching my arm and part of my back with the stinging blow. Per remained silent, but I cried out in surprised pain, the stinging rapidly blossoming into agony. Tears pricked my eyes.
Another Barba, an older man with grim features and only one eye, cuffed the first and berated him in the same strange tongue. The old one came to me, helping father exit, pulling me to the side as he drew the pieces of my torn tunic apart to see the wound. I stiffened under his gaze, knowing in theory what soldiers were rumored to do to captive women, no matter their homeliness. I felt tears prick my eyes and I tried to flee, drawing away from his touch only to be pulled back. The older soldier said, in an accent I could barely understand. "No, I seeing. Me no you hurt. Bleeding, you."
He poked my back for emphasis and then showed me the blood that coated his finger. I have never been one to make a fuss over my injuries. Most of them were self-inflicted due to my own willful negligence or outright clumsiness. Even when Ama Ri laid stripes on my back for transgressions, real or imagined, I took them with a stoic calm, mostly to irritate her. When I saw the blood from the sword wound, I swallowed but said nothing as the old soldier pulled me away from my family. Per's sharp-eyed gaze followed me, but he did nothing to impede my exit.
I chafed at my own lack of will in the proceedings and I jerked from the soldier's grasp, returning to my family's side. The man scowled, said something in a derisive tone and shrugged, as if to say he had washed his hands of me.
I burrowed into Per's chest and hid like one of the littles, wishing I could cry, but knowing if I did I would not stop.
We were left in the square for hours, the warm, wintry sun turning hot as the day wore on. We could hear the screams of the conquered and the dying, and we all soon became inured to the sounds as more carts came, unloading the victims of the morning's battle. Several people died as we waited, and their corpses were dragged away by the ironclad Barba, their stoic faces somewhat obscured by their armor. Jona was sitting with his mother, casting curious looks about even as she sank further into a strangely laconic state, almost a stupor. I wasn't sure, but it seemed as if she was fearful of her discovery by the Barba. Perhaps she had run away from them rather than the more romantic tale that was told of her husband sweeping her from her feet during a trading trip into the Barba lands. Anything was possible.
When the sun was directly overhead, several Barba drudges came through our ranks and gave us tepid water and some flat bread, no doubt stolen from some hapless baker's stores. Uli and Jona tore into theirs like ravening wolves, Per handed his to Ama Ri, and Bridgerit let hers fall through her fingers. When she looked up defiantly from her spot on the ground, the drudge who was serving us shrugged and went on with his business. I thought she was being stupid. This little bread might be the last of the sustenance we received for a good while. I ate half of mine and secured the rest in my tunic by tying my sleeve up to make a pouch. I had always been the more practical of us two sisters.
Ama Ri cast a dark look at me as I sipped my water from the strange, rolled up leaf the drudges had provided as a cup. She hissed, "I should have known you'd adapt to being a slave to these monsters. You always had a whore's heart. Don't think I didn't see you give that provocative look to that nasty swine earlier."
Per cuffed her behind the ear with his closed palm, the ropes binding him slinging over her cheek, and growled, "That's enough, Ri." When Ama Ri drew a breath to express her outrage, Per slapped her again, this time leaving the print of the rope on her already reddened cheek. "I said, enough."
Ama Ri turned away from us both, her quiet sobs turning to pitiful wails. One of the scary, grim-faced Barbas came over and barked something in their liquid language to Per. He answered in a halting rendition of the same tongue, pausing often as if to think before he spoke. The guard looked at Ama Ri and settled before her, his stance wide as he knelt. He fingered her hair, fallen down in the fight, and then squeezed her upper arm, as one would do to purchase a side of meat. Per's face became dangerously calm as the Barba said something to him in that ridiculous language. The Barba laughed as my father did not answer and turned his attention to Bridgerit. She shrank back from him at first but then lifted her chin defiantly. I knew the gesture was a mistake as soon as she did it, but I stifled the words of warning that rose, not wanting to add to the danger to us all. TheBarba picked up the hem of Bridgerit's cowl, and rubbed it between his fingers. He said two words to her, in a tone that conveyed what he thought about her status as a temple priestess. He took her in a cruel, punishing embrace as he mashed her lips against his.
My rescuer from earlier rushed over, and he whipped the younger Barba back with a small scourge and then turned to Per, shouting at him. When the man left, Per said, "He told me to tell you to get rid of your temple clothes."
Bridgerit shrugged out of her cowl revealing a bloody spot on her undertunic from a wound she had received during the fight. I hissed and took what was left of my water to cleanse it. Bridgerit shrank away from me, so I retreated into hurt silence. Bridgerit took my hand and whispered, "Save it for later. You don't know if we'll be given more."
A troop of Barba came up with the last of the captives, the last three carts filled with the governor's household, Cernu's priests, and several other notables from the town. I could just spy Maister Philemon's white head and black face amongst them. He had been injured. His arm, the one he incanted with, was held by his body, a pained look on his features. I wonder how he came to be in this group, but before I could think to ask, another contingent of Barba was amongst us, this one composed of men and women on what looked at first to be metallic beasts. I looked at the beasts disbelievingly until Jona scooted to my side, "Maister Philemon told us that the Barba's armor their mounts just as they armor themselves."
My little brother's voice was tinged with awe and more than a little pride at knowing something of such import. I smiled behind my hand and patted his shoulder. "You are such a smart boy, Jona."
"Yeah," he snorted. "I'd be even smarter if I could get us out of this." He looked away, and after a bit said, "I'm afraid, Bene."
His confession was said with a wobbly chin and glistening eyes. I put my arm around him, trying to lend him some of my false bravery, feeling very much a hypocrite as I swallowed the tears that wanted to fall. The Barba made it through the huddled clumps of our townspeople, the one in obvious authority richly dressed, even though the clothing was marred by the filth of battle. He stopped now and again to separate a person from their group. Under the baleful eyes and menacing airs of his lieutenants, the wails that sounded were cut short as soon as they were uttered. I shivered a little as I saw who he was choosing. He was picking all the townspeople with foreign blood, and attractive boys and girls.
It took the Barba leader time to get to us, but when he did he stopped before Per, saying something to him in his foreign tongue. Per glared up at him and never answered. The man backhanded him, sending Per sprawling. Jona tried to pull away from me, but I held him tight. Per did not need his unfavored children's help, no matter that the brute who attacked him did so without provocation. I willed Per to rise, and he did, coming to his knees shakily as the commander remonstrated him again. It was Ama Ri that broke the stalemate between Per and the haughty Barba. She cried out and pointed to us three, Bridgerit, Jona and I, before she abased herself at his feet. I thought my hate for her could not grow until the Barba leader drew his short, gold-chased sword and drew it across Per's throat. I cried out, or think I did, as Ama Ri, may Cernu damn her soul, begged for mercy with her broken cries. The Barba merely looked on at her before taking her by her hair and letting her blood co-mingle with Per's on the dusty cobbles. The littles screamed and wailed until I opened my arms to them and they scurried away from their mother's body, like lice leaving a dead rat.
The Barba Lord turned his attention to me, his pale green eyes in his bronzed, weather-beaten face boring into me. His cold gaze made me shiver, but I kept may head up as he spoke in this strange tongue to his subordinates. He pointed at me, and then at a slight figure in the back of the group. That figure answered with a soft female voice as she stepped forward to claim me.
She pulled me up by my arm, the wound in my side itching and painful as I was forced to stand. I looked into the face of a hard-eyed woman, her plain features obscured by the armor she wore. She propelled me before her as she took me away from my family, their wails of anguish my parting memory.
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