11.

If Zin thought the days were hard, it was nothing to the nights; that was when the Paleskins came.

They came from dusk till dawn. Sometimes soldiers. Sometimes ordinary men. Zin wondered if they were farmers—those ordinary men. They looked dirty and smelt of earth and beast. Her mother had occasionally reminisced about her old life as a Paleskin villager. Apparently, Zin’s grandfather had been a farmer before he died. If he had been anything like these ones, Zin was glad her father had murdered him.

The first thing they did was arrive at the tent where the man with the pale eyes lived. There, either one or both of the assistants in the brown robes accompanied them to the pen. The two assistants would wait patiently, holding aloft lanterns while the buyer made his choice, strolling to and fro as he scoured the prisoners with his gleaming eyes.

That first night Zin lay next to Crest, trying her best to keep small, her heart pounding in her chest, as she prayed for the Mother’s protection. She was cowardly for doing so, she knew. Someone had to be chosen, and she was no more important than the others. But she couldn’t deny it—she was scared. She knew what the Paleskins would do to her. She knew her father’s history. She saw Bulla’s and Crest’s bloodied clothes and horror-filled eyes.

Either the Mother heard her or there was something Zin didn’t know because they never chose her. Not that they didn’t show interest. Each and every time their greedy eyes would immediately pin her down. They would then say something to one of the brown-robed men, who would say something back, and the farmer or soldier would shake his head and turn to another prisoner.

On one particular night Crest managed to escape their notice. Bulla wasn’t so fortunate.

He returned the next morning barely conscious, his back whipped to shreds, gashes down his arms and legs. Broken nose. Black eye. His wrist twisted. What else they had done to him she didn’t want to know. But his screaming had carried on the wind and when he returned his eyes had never looked so black.

Was that all the Paleskins wanted? To maim and torture?

Zin did all she could do for him: moistening his lips with water, lying him on his side so his wounds were kept clean of shit and mud. He didn’t say anything. Just gazed into the void. And she suddenly understood what the old man with the pale eyes meant about breaking his prisoners.

Would she look like that when her time came?

But it seemed her day might never come. Time after time she watched the Paleskins make their selection and return the chosen the next morning worse than they were the day before. And every time Zin attracted keen interest, only to be dismissed.

She was never more glad, of course, but it didn’t mean she didn’t suffer. The sun was as glaring as ever, and despite the awning, she burned red raw. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to think. And no matter how much she drank, a permanent thirst clawed at her throat.

The ground was hot and as hard as rock beneath her knees, making it hard to sleep or get comfortable. Like the others, she shat and pissed and sweated where she slept. The cuff around her neck tore at her wound, so that it itched and throbbed and she felt the trickle of warm blood down her throat. Her back ached. Her legs ached.

Then there was the fear. Which was worst of all. Each night she waited, all tensed up like a taut bow ready to fire. Her shoulders bunched up, her heart pounding, her stomach in knots as she awaited her fate. Would this be the time? There was nothing more frightening than the flickering flames of the lantern, the brown robes of the assistants, the beady, gleaming eyes of the Paleskins ready to torture, rape and dominate. Sometimes she thought it was best to get it over with. That the waiting was so much worse. Then she would watch as they dragged their prisoner away to their quarters, or shared them with their friends out in the open.

At least it all happened far away from the slave pen: the violence, the torture. But the screaming … No matter the distance, at each passing day it seemed to get louder and louder. As though in warning. As though her time was almost up.

Death. She went over to Bulla to give him some water. She had already moistened his lips and pressed the cup to his mouth before she realised he would no longer drink. Staring up at the sky, his dark eyes glazed over. Pale and stiff and sunken.
Two daughters were waiting for him in the forests back home.

She stared at him. Taking him in—all of him—before the flies got to him. Before the Paleskins dragged him away and left him to wither in the heat.

Her eyes were dry. Too empty to cry. She thought of her family. Not me. Not me. Amma and abba and my brothers and sisters are waiting for me. And she prayed and hoped and begged. All silent. In her mind. Under her breath. In the clench of her fists. Mother, if you’re listening, let me go home. Let me touch them again. Hold them again.

Hopeless. Pitiless. Pointless.

At her weakest she would look for the flame-haired rapist, only to see nothing but faceless figures and a dusty sky. She would tell him her name now. Forget her pride. She would submit. Just give her shelter and comfort and protection from these awful men.

Lost chances. That sinking feeling of regret. That black hole in her heart. Widening. Aching.

So cold. Shivering. No matter the heat of the day. No matter she sweated rivers and her clothing stuck to her like a second skin.

Abba. Amma. Xala. Grit. Quess. Quip.

Grit. Abba. Amma. Quip. Quess. Xala

Quess. Quip.. Amma. Xala. Grit. Abba.

She wrapped her arms around herself. Remember. Remember. Hold on tight.
Don’t let go.

So hard.

Awake all night. Then the sun would dawn, and she would have to contend with the unremitting heat. Awake all day. Plead for clouds and rain. Sometimes the brown-robed assistants listened, throwing buckets of water over them. But it was warm and dirty and it stung against the sores and old wounds. Especially the one at her throat. She imagined the water pooling there, pink and white with blood and pus. Sometimes she woke up from her dozes, clawing at her neck, still feeling Paleskin fingers digging inside her throat.

Show me your insides. Open your legs. Inside, outside. Nothing is left of you that isn’t ours.

Savage. Captive. Slave.

Oh, Mother, hear my prayers.

The Mother wasn’t listening. No sleep. No hope. Sliding, sinking, drowning.
No hope. No love. The world was filled with Paleskins. And it was a cold, dark place.

Then it finally happened.

The end. The beginning. Both as equally good and bad as the other.

Night. The gleaming lanterns. The brown-robed assistants. A dark-haired Paleskin, seeking, searching, finding.

Her. That’s all he said. Her. And that pointing finger. As big as a God’s. As sharp as a knife. It seemed to plunge into her guts, into her heart, and twist. Zin waited for the usual shake of the head from the brown-robed assistants.

It didn’t come.

Zin didn’t have the strength to fight, barely able to walk on her buckling knees. The assistants’ hands were rough and sweaty against her elbows as they hauled her to her feet. Trip, stumble, trip stumble, sag. Then they dragged her. Everything was a blur. Everything was pain. Throbbing and aching.

The dark-haired Paleskin walked up ahead—no, marched up ahead. He was purposeful, quiet. Unlike the other Paleskins. Straight-backed and authoritative. And she had never seen a back so broad. A man so tall. Huge. And he seemed to expand and lengthen until he filled the world.

A tent. An entrance. It looked familiar, and for a moment she hoped that somehow the flame-haired Paleskin was inside.

Zin. My name is Zin. Sun and moon. Fire and gleaming water. The light that never fades. I am the light that never fades.

I will do anything you ask, just don’t hurt me.

I am the light that never fades.

Her parents had called her that. Amma and Abba. It meant strength and hope.

I am Zin. My father’s daughter. Strong and hopeful. The light that brightens the darkness.

The light that brightens the darkness.

The lantern by her head flickered. Torches flashed in the distance. The moon glowed.

Light. There was always light in the darkness.

They dropped her to her knees and it was as though she had never felt a ground so soft. That strange, woollen matting again. She brushed her hands through it, then clutched at her neck. How it itched. How it burned. She raked her nails against it. The dressing stuck to her sticky wound.

‘I want her cleaned up—and quickly.’ The voice was unfamiliar and muffled, as though she were listening through water.

Zin looked up. Not the flame-haired rapist, but the dark-haired man. He was talking with a tall, slim woman with long, brown hair. Zin stared. A Quarthi woman. But different, strange. Her bronze skin gleamed in the candlelight. She wore the same clothes as Zin did but they were clean and unsoiled. The woman looked at Zin. Zin looked at the woman. Then the man turned. He seemed strangely familiar but she couldn’t understand why. Neck and cheeks dark with thick black stubble. Long nose. Thick, dark eyebrows. Something passed over his face and the look he gave her was strange. Surprised? Curious? Eager?

Whatever it was, it made Zin’s insides churn. She dropped her eyes to the floor. There was a wildness about his eyes. Something feral. She clawed her fingers through the matting. The back of her neck itched, feeling his gaze boring into her.

His footsteps thudded lightly against the soft ground as he left. Zin released a breath.

‘Come on,’ snapped the woman. Zin looked up again. The woman was frowning. ‘Get up. Keep your master waiting at your peril.’

The woman turned towards the tub of water. Like Zin’s own clothes, the back was open. Zin pursed her lips. Beneath her tumble of shining dark hair, the smooth skin of her back was green and yellow with old bruises. And beneath that were lumpy white welts. More than a dozen criss-crossing her back. It reminded Zin of her uncle’s old scars. On the back of her left arm Zin saw what looked like the red bruising of fingers, as though somebody had grabbed her cruelly.

‘You’re a slave.’ Zin’s voice was barely a croak. She clutched at her neck.

‘Quick, aren’t you?’ There came the dribble of water as she squeezed out a rag into the tub.

Slowly, Zin eased to her feet. She looked over her shoulder at the exit. The flap had been pulled shut.

‘Don’t think about it,’ the woman said. ‘There are armed men at the door just waiting for an excuse to hurt you. Now, come here.’ Holding the rag, she stepped back. ‘Strip off and get in. This is going to take a while.’

Zin didn’t move, gazing at her. ‘I don’t know you. You aren’t part of the clan.’

For a moment the woman’s face was blank, then her nose creased in anger. She scowled. ‘Don’t speak to me in those savage noises.’

Zin raised her eyebrows. ‘You mean Quarthi? You don’t know Quarthi?’ she said in English.

The woman gave another blank look.

‘Quarthi. Your people’s language.’

Her nostrils flared. ‘You savages are not my people. You never were. I am a Toth. A slave—but still a Toth. Blessed by God as the dominate race.’

Zin stared at her, suddenly realising why she looked so strange. Her facial features weren’t right: her nose was too small, her eyes too big. Her skin was dark enough but there was a lightness in her hair that was all too familiar.

She’s like me, Zin thought in astonishment.

Half and half. Zin’s father had once spoken about the children born from slaves. Children born out of rape and violence.

Like me.

The woman gritted her teeth. ‘Stop staring at me like a dumb cow. Get into the fucking tub. Master will be back soon.’ She looked towards the entrance. ‘And you don’t want to know him when he’s angry. Now, strip!’

Still, Zin didn’t move. The woman growled. Her eyes narrowed. Zin should have seen it coming but she was weak and malnourished and her reflexes were sluggish. The slap burned against her cheek. It wasn’t a hard hit but in Zin’s weakened state it made her stagger.

The woman seized her chin, glaring straight into her eyes. ‘Don’t play games. Master hates games, unless he’s in control.’ Zin grabbed her wrist, about to wrench her free when she realised the woman was shaking. Tears shone in her eyes. ‘If you don’t get clean by the time he comes back, we’ll both be punished.’ She glanced back towards the entrance.

Zin eased the woman’s hand away. ‘What’s he going to do with me?’

The woman was shaking all over now, so violently she had to hold her arms. ‘That will depend on you. Do as he says. Don’t fight. Or you’ll suffer for it. We’ll both suffer for it. Now, into the tub.’

The woman was far from gentle but she did the job: cleaning her wounds, scraping away the shit and mud. She washed her hair several times with a strange sweet-smelling liquid. But when she went to clean Zin between the legs, Zin seized her wrist. ‘I’ll do it.’

Finally the woman turned to the wound at her neck, unsticking the dressing carefully so that she didn’t tear away the stitches.

Her eyes widened at what she saw. She glanced at Zin, then away again, as she cleaned and redressed the wound with new linen. She didn’t ask what happened. Other than her initial surprise, she didn’t seem to care. She didn’t seem to care for conversation at all. Nor did she like to touch her, Zin could see, going by the way she screwed up her mouth in distaste, by how she held the rag in the very tips of her fingers whenever she could. And it was because of more than just the shit and muck.

‘Savage,’ she kept muttering under her breath. ‘Filthy savage.’

It left a sinking feeling in the pit of Zin’s stomach. What must have happened for her to so despise her own people? She wasn’t a Quarthi at all—if she ever was. That pinched face. That arrogance. She might bear the bronze skin of the Quarthi, but she and Zin were nothing alike.

Soon, she was done. She dropped the rag into the tub as Zin stepped out.

‘Careful! Don’t get the carpet wet,’ she exclaimed as she began drying her off.
The woman checked her over carefully, then unfolded more of that strange clothing that all the prisoners wore. Zin’s old one lay in a filthy pile on the floor.

‘You look pale,’ the girl said. ‘Best to sit down and rest. You’re going to need all the strength you have for tonight.’

Zin gladly sat on the soft floor. She gazed around the room. It was much the same as the flame-haired Paleskin’s tent. Her eyes fell on the big bed positioned in the corner. It made her suddenly cold. Those dark, feral eyes flashed in her mind. Goose bumps puckered on her arms.

She knew what was going to happen. Knew it like she knew the sun would rise tomorrow. The woman didn’t speak again, nor did she look at her as she quickly removed the dirty linen and emptied the tub.

Then she was gone and Zin was alone. The sound of her own breathing seemed so loud. Her heart hammered so hard it was a wonder the guards didn’t hear it. But she studied the tent closely, her hunter’s eyes scouring her surrounds. There had to be something she could use. She wasn’t cuffed or collared. She had some strength. She might not be able to escape through the tent door. But there were other ways. She touched her neck, then stood and went over to the small blade sitting so openly on the table.

Even with all their machines and metal, the Paleskins could be strangely dumb. She picked it up, fingering the blade. Small but sharp.

The thud of footsteps. Voices. She looked down at her Paleskin clothes. Nowhere to hide it. Quickly, she shoved the knife beneath one of the pillows on the bed.

She stepped back at the sound of the flap whipping open and was surprised to see the slave woman again. Even more startling was the steaming dish she was carrying. The smell of it filled Zin’s mouth with spit. Her eyes watered. The woman placed it on a table.

‘Master commands that you eat.’ When Zin didn’t move, she rolled her eyes and left.

Zin stared at it for several long moments. Should she? Shouldn’t she? What did it mean if she did? But she’d eaten hardly anything in days. The dish was already at her lips before she could think. It burnt the roof of her mouth, her tongue. It rushed down her throat in deep, sucking gulps. After several mouthfuls she paused to gasp for breath, then finished the rest.

‘Good, isn’t it?’

Zin turned with a start, almost throwing the dish across the room in her fright. Stomping his boots free of dirt, he ducked inside. Zin backed away as those dark feral eyes locked onto her, but steadied herself, willing herself not to look away this time.

I am the light that brightens the darkness. I am the light that brightens the darkness.

I am my father’s daughter. Strong and brave.

The Mother protect me.

12.

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