7.

Lord Aaron Clapton stared at his blood-soaked gauntlets, then hastily peeled them off, tossing them to the ground like he couldn’t get them far enough away. He clenched his fists, his hands trembling. He couldn’t understand why he was so shaken. It was far from his first battle. He had killed before. Almost been killed before, many times. Had seen many terrible things. But he had never seen something quite like that. Not by a mere girl.
Savage or not.

And those eyes—black with so much hate.

He still wore her blood on his breastplate. It was probably in his hair, on his face, along with the blood of the rest of the savages he had killed.

‘Lucas!’ His squire hurried over. ‘Help remove my armour.’

Lucas glanced warily into the trees. ‘But there could be more of them.’

‘The battle’s over. I want it off, all of it. Now.’ Aaron couldn’t shed it quickly enough. The boy would have to carry it all back to camp if he couldn’t find a horse. It mattered not.

‘And draw me a bath.’

Lucas bobbed his head. ‘Yes, my lord.’

Aaron clutched at his head with a grimace. It was hours since that spear throw that almost killed him but the throbbing in his head was only getting worse. If it hadn’t been for his helm, he would be dead right now. That girl. That throw. He had never seen anything like it.

Women simply couldn’t do things like that.

It no longer mattered. She had still been alive when the physician had taken her away but with an injury like that, it was unlikely she would survive. He pressed his fingers to his temples with a wince. He should have been pleased with the outcome. The forest had been taken, the savages routed. They had captured a number of slaves. And once they had cleaned the forest up of the dead, the real work could begin.

If all went to plan, the Land of Toth would become a force to be reckoned with.
He shouldn’t just feel pleased. He should feel elated.

But all he could think of was the girl’s last moments: how pale she looked, her gasping breaths, the blood smeared on her breasts.

Unbuckling his water skin, he took a drink and spat, but it did nothing to wash the sour taste out of his mouth.

 

Later that evening the camp was celebrating. The battle was over. Most of the soldiers would soon return to their families, while the farmers and builders could start work on clearing the forest and constructing homes and farms, and begin work on a new fortress.

Lord Aaron joined his brother as he stood at the edge of camp, watching as the light from the flickering torches weaved in and out through the trees.

Lord Jeffrey turned at the sound of his approach. ‘Well met, brother.’ He slapped him on the back, then slung an arm around his shoulders, leaning against him heavily. ‘How goes the head?’

Aaron reeled back, catching his brother’s wrist before he could prod his wound.

‘Fine, just fine.’

Jeffrey chuckled, burped, then wiped his mouth. Aaron could smell the ale on his breath. Aaron wasn’t much better himself. Staggering under his brother’s weight. His headache was much improved and his recollection of the battle had become blurry and faded. Ale was often the best medicine.

‘It’s all ours, brother.’ Jeffrey shook him. ‘And see how excited our people are?’ He waved his hand over the forest and its flickering lights. ‘Already they’re hard at work, eager to seize what’s rightfully ours.’ Lord Aaron’s ears pricked up at the muffled whirring of machinery before the sound was lost beneath a burst of shouting and laughter from the soldiers behind him. ‘Just think of it, brother. So much fertile ground to farm. Animals to hunt. Endless timber to build new cities. And all that iron ore to mine. If the rumours are true. We’ll open a new trade route with the Sand People to the east. Then there’s the harbour. The Crantic Ocean will be ours. Fleets of ships, brother.’ Jeffrey shook him again. ‘With any luck we will begin our invasion of the Sand People within the decade. Just think of it.’ His eyes glittered as he gazed at the forest. ‘Nobody will be able to stop us.’

Lord Aaron felt the excitement swell in his chest. Magnificent cities, prosperous people, a sprawling population that would only grow bigger and more powerful. More spectacular. He grinned along with his brother.

*

Zin woke slowly and in agony. There didn’t seem to be a single part of her body that wasn’t on fire. If this was death, it certainly wasn’t what she expected. She gasped as she slowly raised her left arm to touch her throat. She felt fabric. She tried to move her right arm but her shoulder seized up in a terrible cramp which made her cry out.

There came a hiss, followed by a string of English. Zin blinked. A fuzzy figure hovered over her. Everything else was in shadow.

There was another string of English. And this time she caught a few words. ‘…move…still…hurt…’

Zin reached deep into her brain. It had been a long time since she had spoken a word of her mother’s language. ‘What?’ she croaked.

The figure looked over their shoulder and spoke. A second blurry figure approached. Zin blinked rapidly. And finally she could see. A Paleskin with wispy white hair that barely covered his shiny, bald crown. He looked thin and weak, but there was a sharpness to his face she didn’t like. And those eyes—his eyes were something else; they were so pale they were almost colourless. Colourless and cruel.

Zin clenched her hands into fists, gritted her teeth, but still she could not move. Her body had never felt so heavy.

‘You…speak…English?’ he said slowly.

Zin glared up at him.

His eyes glittered. ‘Good. Keep still. This will hurt.’

Zin cried out as they shoved up her legs, bending her painful knee. Then they pushed her legs apart. Zin’s heart thudded. Her eyes widened. ‘What are you doing!’ she choked out in Quarthi. ‘Keep away, you filth.’ She thrashed against them, tried to kick out but somebody held her feet. Another Paleskin pushed down on her shoulders. She no longer cared about the pain. What was the pain to the violation? She sucked in a breath at a sharp sting. He was inside her! He was inside her! Something cold and hard. No doubt some terrible Paleskin tool.

‘Get out! Get out!

She screamed and screamed to no effect, and when he finally pulled out, she wept.

Not from grief or fear, not even from humiliation—but fury.

The old man gazed down on her, looking pleased. Then he said something to his companions, only half of which she understood, ‘The…will be pleased. She will…a…price…A…price.’

*

The next morning, Lord Aaron strolled through the camp. His head was still thumping but he wasn’t entirely sure whether it was from the attack or the ale. The sun had barely risen, and those who were already awake sat listlessly, their eyes red-rimmed or else slumped over with their heads in their hands. Some nodded as he passed, others wobbled to their feet respectfully.

Banners whipped in the wind. Horses nickered. And from the distance came the whirring of machinery as eager farmers began the long process of demolishing the forest. It was going to be another hot day; his tunic was already sticking to his back and sweat trickled under his arms. Unsurprising, considering how close they were to the Windy Mountains, beyond which stretched the long empty sands of the White Desert where the Sand People lived.

He ran his fingers through his hair, wincing as he accidentally pressed against his left temple. The savage had done a good job. The whole left side of his face was bruised, the eye pink and swollen.

The throw had meant to kill.

He felt more light-hearted today following his brother’s words last night. There were far more important things to think about than the life of a savage. Their lives held no meaning in the eyes of God, after all. Besides, after what she had done to him, it would be God’s justice that she died.

So why are you bothering to visit the slave camp?

To see what kind of haul we have acquired. Strong healthy slaves are good for the realm.

Aaron shook his head. He couldn’t even believe his own lies.

The pastor’s pavilion and the slave pen lay ahead but he detoured towards the edge of camp where he knew the bodies lay. Only three natives—those who didn’t survive the night. There was usually a pile at every slave camp, only growing bigger as the days passed. As usual, they were left to rot. No burial rituals. No dignity. They weren’t worth the effort. They weren’t covered and their eyes peered emptily into the sky. Flies buzzed. A couple of crows hopped hopefully nearby. Two bodies bore deep abdominal wounds. The third had half his face smashed in. They were all men. Aaron stared, both puzzled and alarmed that he should feel such hope.

‘Lord Aaron.’

Aaron turned with a start. ‘Fair morning, Father Peter.’

The old pastor bobbed his head. ‘It is. Another fair morning. God smiles on us.’ He pursed his thin lips as he ran his pale eyes over the bruise on Aaron’s face but didn’t say anything. He wore the simple brown robe that all ministers donned, sandals on his feet, and a long chain bearing a glittering cross. The shiny crown of his head was heavily spotted and pink. He dropped his gaze to the bodies. ‘A waste. I had high hopes for them. Tall, strong men. They would have done well in the mines. But alas, their wounds were too severe.’

Aaron looked over to the slave pen where the still living prisoners resided. ‘And what of the rest of the haul?’ He squinted but couldn’t see much of anything except hazy figures.

The pastor eyed him sharply over his long nose. ‘She is alive.’

Aaron hardened his jaw. It seemed word had spread about his incident. ‘I asked about the haul, Father.’

The pastor’s lips twitched, but he bobbed his head. ‘Of course, my lord. It is a sound haul. Bishop Compton should be pleased. They should fetch a good price for the Church. You want to take a look?’

Each of them was chained by the neck to an iron stake hammered into the ground. A few had their own stake; most were made to share. They couldn’t stand, only able to crouch or lie on the hot ground. And all they had to shelter them was a thin, ragged awning that managed to cover only the central few, leaving those on the edges to burn out in the glaring sun. The place stank. They shat and ate where they slept. Flies buzzed all over them. They wore the usual slave tunics. Sleeveless, high collared, backless. They reached mid-thigh in one piece and were shockingly white against their dark skin. Their wounds had been tended to; he could see their clean white bandages. It seemed odd to him that the pastor bothered, considering the overall state of them, until he remembered a conversation he once had with Priest Raymond a while back.

‘The purpose is to break them. A slave is useless if they can’t do what they’re told. Withhold food, withhold sleep, torture them, abuse them. It’s the only way they’ll know their masters.’

He counted sixteen. Ten men, six women. And all in varying states of damage. ‘I thought you said it was a sound haul,’ Aaron said. ‘So few. And where are the children?’

‘There are no children, my lord. What we have here are soldiers.’

Lord Aaron frowned. ‘Even the women?’

‘Even the women.’ He clutched at his cross.

They did look strong, Lord Aaron realised, as he studied them. Tall and muscular and hard-faced. Still … What kind of people forced their women to fight?

Godforsaken barbarians.

‘But that means there are more of them out there. A lot more.’

‘Hiding,’ Father Peter agreed. ‘Our business here is not yet done.’

Aaron stroked his stubbled throat. He could sense the old pastor waiting. Aaron didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being right about his interest in the girl, but what else could he do? He needed to know.

‘Where is she?’

They kept her sheltered in an annexe off the pastor’s pavilion. The room had no bars and it was cool and airy. Her head was on a pillow, her dark hair brushed out. Her body was covered in a sheet. They had washed away the blood and grime from her face. She was younger than he had originally thought. Almost pretty now that her face wasn’t screwed up in a snarl. She was breathing gently. Relaxed and peaceful

‘We’ve given her some tonic for the pain and to keep her calm. Once she’s healed enough, she can join the others.’

Aaron studied the bandage around her throat. It was dry. ‘Too shallow or did she miss?’

‘She missed. Any higher and she would have died on the spot. But it was deep enough. She meant to die.’

‘Of course she meant to die!’ Aaron didn’t know why he felt so angry. He shook himself.

‘She looks different to the others.’

‘Yes, a mix. Half Toth, half savage.’

Aaron nodded. He could see it now. He had seen them on the streets of Fairmont often enough, the progeny of slave women raped by their masters. The new generation of slaves.

Unlike the usual deep bronze, her skin was a brown-golden colour. Almost like burnt honey. Her facial features were softer, but her native heritage still dominated in the broadness of her nose and chin and in the sharpness of her cheekbones. A strange ensemble but not displeasing.

He felt Father Peter watching him. ‘Apparently she can speak some English.’

Lord Aaron raised his eyebrows. ‘Really?’

‘And she’s untouched. I checked her myself.’ He clasped his bony hands together. ‘I could make her ready within the week. For the right price.’

Aaron narrowed his eyes at his presumption. ‘What are you suggesting, Father Peter?’

‘Nothing at all, my lord.’ His pale eyes glittered. ‘Nothing at all.’

Aaron gave him a hard look, then left.

 

8.

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