The women and children were brought safely from the caves and most families enjoyed a joyful, if tearful, reunion. Six villagers had died. Two were near death and several others had wounds that would heal, although with varying degrees of success. The townspeople rounded up the horses and dumped all the raiders’ belongings in a pile for Gygr to go through.
Gygr followed Bris past the still smoldering tavern to the blacksmith shop and the prisoners the villagers had captured. The tall woman sat on a barrel and motioned for one man to be brought to her. Bris had decided which were probably privy to information just based on their demeanor. They were set aside. The man Tang brought forward was definitely an underling who knew little about the man in charge, if anything at all.
Tang pushed the man into a kneeling position in front of the warrior woman and watched as he swallowed once, then again. “I want information.” Gygr’s voice was soft and low. She smiled lightly when the man nodded.
“How old are you?”
The man had not expected this question. “Twenty.” His voice quivered. “Next month. Twenty next month.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ever been a slave, Quella?”
“Uh, no.” He looked into her eyes then quickly down to the floor.
Every one in the room watched her. “But you’re more than happy to sell others right?”
“Yes, I mean no.” The man was confused. “It was a way to get money. That’s all.”
“Do you know what they do to slaves who try to escape?” Her voice was still soft.
“Whip them, I think.” He looked up hoping he answered correctly.
Bris looked at Gygr with new eyes. Never had he seen someone so mesmerizing. Never had he seen someone so outwardly in control. He knew inside a black rage waited, pacing like a panther, eager to get out. And that worried him. He knew what it could do. What she could do. He didn't know where her questions with this one was leading. He eyed the long chains with a hook at the end that hung from the beam overhead. The smith used them to hang various items to cool overnight. He knew Gygr would have plenty of uses for them.
Gygr stepped outside followed by Tang and Bris. “Strip them. Get them on the hooks Tang. Bris check Emilie out.” She stopped and smiled, “would you?”
“Gygr you know you need only ask.”
“Thanks.” She watched as the man headed for the inn which now housed the injured.
“Tang, I’ll question them tonight,” she jerked her head to the temporary prison. “No food or water. Make sure they’re as uncomfortable as possible.” She turned to leave then turned back. “No one goes in.”
“Right.” He nodded his head.
Emilie sobbed, “tell her I’m so sorry. All I had to do was protect him and I couldn’t even do that.” She thrashed uncomfortably in the bed.
“Emilie everything is fine. Hannibal is all right.” Bris stroked her forehead.
“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
Bris stepped out the door to speak to Gygr.
“She’s got some burn blisters but the thing that concerns me is the head injury. She thinks Hannibal is dead. She thinks she failed you.”
She swore in Dorian and Bris’ ears reddened.
“How about the others.”
“Haven’t checked them yet. Thought you were more . .” He stopped. “I’ll check on them now.” He placed a small pot into the warrior’s hand. “Salve for the blisters. Put it on six times a day.” He smiled and left quickly.
“What do you think I am?” But he wasn’t there to hear her.
The room was larger than she expected. There were two beds and Emilie was in the one to the immediate left of the door. The second bed was past the first and a chair was between them. The woman who sat in the chair rose and left when Gygr entered.
The warrior lifted the linen that covered Emilie and gasped at what she saw. Gods. Blisters the size of a 5 singli coin covered her arms and back. In some places the top layers of skin were missing. Gygr sat back into the chair and closed her eyes a moment. “Emilie I’m so sorry.”
Eyes flickered open. “Gygr?”
“Hey Emilie,” the warrior wasn’t sure what to say. “Got some salve here to put on your burns.” The word caught in her throat.
“I . . I . . didn’t protect him very well. I’m . .”
“Emilie,” the voice was firm, “Hannibal and the other horses are safe. You did protect them.”
“Yes . . Gygr, really? . . I . .”
“You did a good thing Emilie.”
“I have to put this on your . . uh . . wounds. It’s going to hurt.”
Emilie let a tear fall and turned her face to the wall. “Okay.”
Gygr’s hands were gentle. There were so many wounds. Gygr thanked the gods that the largest was only about half as big as her hand and it would not leave a scar. “I’ll be back later. You rest now. Delia will bring you something to eat.”
Emilie looked at the tall warrior and tied to smile. “Okay.”
Gygr leaned over and kissed the girl on the forehead.
Tang and Bris stood outside the door and heard the screams from the prisoners inside. It was almost dawn and except for the three times she left to attend to Emilie the warrior spent every minute inside forcing information from terrified lips.
At dawn she pulled a shaking Quella from the room and threw him into the arms of Bris. “Get him something to eat. Tang I found manacles in their saddlebags. Get the damn things on those guys in there who can work and start clearing the stable and tavern. When you get a chance Bris attend the . . uh . . wounded in there.”
Emilie was crying when Gygr entered the room. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” The girl wiped her face with her hand and winced.
“Here,” Gygr took a clean linen and gently patted the tears away. “Time for more salve.”
“It hurts so much,” tears fell again and the warrior carefully patted them away once more.
“Yes I know.”
“Someone I . . You’ll be all right Emilie.” Gygr’s throat tightened and she spent the next few minutes tenderly rubbing the salve into the wounds.
“I have to turn you over Emilie.” Carefully she lifted the girl and set her on her side then rolled her onto her back.
Gygr felt the heat under her fingers as she tenderly rubbed the salve over the wounds on her arms.
Gygr we’re not supposed to be here. Cristov turned to face her and walked backwards. We’ll get in trouble again.
“Cristov if you don’t want to, then go. I’m staying.”
The young man threw his hands up. Outside thunder and lightning crackled and boomed, the rain coming down in torrents. In the room Gygr stoked the fire and put Cristov to work on the bellows. She pulled the knife she had been making from the inside of her shirt and thrust the blade into the red hot coals.
“See now’s the perfect time. With all that noise from the storm no one will hear us.”
Cristov removed his shirt as the place got hotter and Gygr did the same. The man noticed the breasts that were beginning to enlarge and turned away. Gygr was starting to look different and he was starting to feel very different whenever he saw her.
When the metal was red hot Gygr used the long tongs to pull it from the coals and started the process of banging the heavy smith hammer against the blade to flatten and draw it out. Gygr had heard of someone making the blade fold over hundreds and hundreds of times to give it strength and an edge that would never nick or dull. She had been working on this blade for over a year. Every night there was a storm Gygr had been in the forge working on the dagger. Her sword arm was getting stronger and Bris had noticed so Gygr had started using her left hand to pound the metal. Now her arms, hands and wrists were as strong as Cristov’s who was, at 18, five years older. Gygr’s growth spurt had begun and she felt sad for her friend when he had to start looking up to her. But then he continued to grow too. The knife was to be a gift to him. Cristov was Alaistrian and she’d already learned that language and had the design worked out to put his name on the blade itself.
By morning the knife was looking much more like a dagger and much less like a lump of metal waiting to be tossed into some tailing heap. The storm still raged outside but Gygr and Cristov had closed the bellows and chatted while they waited for the coals to cool enough so they could safely leave. A fire could destroy the entire compound and more fires started in forges than nearly anywhere else.
The crack and flash came together and Gygr was thrown to the floor. She heard Cristov scream in agony. The next thing she new she was in the physicians room with large blisters on her body. Beside her she heard Cristov scream. She turned and watched in horror as the physician removed the young mans clothes taking with it so much skin the girl could see only red underneath.
“It was my fault Bris.” By the following day her wounds were completely healed. They told her she was an exceptionally fast healer. She never had a wound that took more than a day to heal. Never.
“Nonsense Little One. It was the lightening. It struck you both and threw you to the floor and Cristov into the forge. There is no fault.”
“But I made him go, Bris. We broke the rules.”
“Little One. The fault is mine. I knew what you were both doing and did not stop you.”
“Will he die?”
“Yes Little One. He will die.”
Gygr visited Cristov every day. “Cristov I was making the knife for you.” She’d said it so simply tears welled in the young man's eyes.
Gygr jerked in the chair and opened her eyes. Her hair was damp and her skin wet. She gulped in air and stood trying to shake the dream. Was it a dream? She looked at the bed and saw Emilie's eyes closed. Thank the gods. The warrior sat back in the chair and stretched her legs out. Gygr almost nodded off again then turned to see Emilie watching her. “Thought you were asleep.”"Will you finish it?”
“Please Gygr, finish it. And keep it for me.”
The girl could feel the tears begin to form but she willed them away. “I will.” She wanted to pat him on the shoulder but it was raw so Gygr leaned over the bed and kissed him in the only place there was skin. On the lips. “Goodbye Cristov.”
“Gygr,” he smiled. “You are a wonderful gladiator.” It was the highest honor he could pay.
She had another nightmare.
“Hurts to much to sleep.” She closed her eyes and opened them again, “did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Have another nightmare?”
Gygr lowered her head. How does she know? “You a mystic or something?”
“I’ll get you some water. You should be drinking lots of water.” Gygr stood and left the room closing the door carefully behind her. The inn was crowded with villagers retelling the tale of their battle with the slavers. They were in a good mood. Gygr saw Tang with his back against the wall and slipped in beside him. “Take care of that for me?”
“Yeah, only fourteen are able to work now though. Bris said the rest tomorrow.” The man wanted to ask how she had terrorized and tortured twenty-seven men into giving her information without leaving a single wound. Where could she have learned that?
“How’s the girl?”
“In pain. When you see Bris . .”
“You bet. At the same time I think he should look you over too. You’ve got a lot of cuts and burns yourself and those blisters on your shoulders need to be taken care of.”
For the first time Gygr took a good look at her arms. Burn blisters dotted them and she felt them on her neck.
She swore in Esturian.
“Gygr I understand Esturian.” Tang smiled, “but I couldn’t have put it better.”
“We going after the slavers?”
“Yeah. ” Gygr growled.
“Bal should be back day after tomorrow. We could probably be ready to leave this place in three, four days.” The young man took a long pull from his mug.
“Yeah. He went to Abumarn to hire some men to go after the slavers.”
“When did he leave?”
“This morning. You Okay?”
“Yeah, why you asking?” She was getting a little testy.
“Well, you told him to go didn’t you?”
“Actually I didn’t.” She shook her head.
“But we’ll need some help. So it’s probably not a bad idea. Just wonder why he took it on himself to do that.”
“Who knows?” She shrugged.
Gygr retrieved a waterskin and some fruit from the kitchen then returned to the room. “Here,” she poured water into a mug and helped the girl drink. “Good. All of it. Yeah.”
“Why did you run away?”
The warrior looked at the girl. “I didn’t run away. Had things to do.”
“Oh.” Her body jerked and Emilie closed her eyes tears streaming down her face. “Gods,” she sobbed, “it hurts so bad.”
“Easy Emilie. Just take a deep breath and blow it out slow.” Emilie did as she was told. “Good now again.” And she did it again. “One more time.” Emilie took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “Feel better?”
“Yeah,” she lied.
“Emilie.” Gygr looked at the girl her face a mask of concern, “don’t you ever lie to me about anything.”
The patient nodded her head slowly.
“Understand?” Gygr’s voice was low and threatening.
“Ye . . yes, I understand.” Emilie closed her eyes. “I’ll promise I’ll never lie to you. But you promise you won’t lie to me too.”
“Yes. You. Promise?”
“Then I don’t either.” Emilie turned her head to the wall.
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” The warrior slouched in the chair.
“What makes you think you can’t keep this promise. I’m not asking you not to lie to anyone. Just not to me. How hard can that be?” She turned her head to look at the warrior. “Makes no difference I’m probably dying anyway. Never mind.”
“You’re not dying.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“You are not going to die.”
The girls body convulsed and she cried out in pain. “Gods I hurt so bad.”
Gygr opened the door almost before the knock was completed. “Bris,” she pulled the man inside, “she’s in terrible pain. Give her something for it.”
“Gygr I need to check you too.”
“Bris,” she yelled and both the man and the patient jumped, “Emilie first. Do you have something to control her pain?”
“Yes Gygr I will but you have to calm down.”
“I am calm.”
“Gygr you’re about to break my wrist. Please relax.”
She looked down and released her hand from the man's wrist which she’d grabbed to pull him into the room.
“Uh . . . ,” She took a breath and counted to ten slowly, released it then repeated the process twice.
Bris mixed a white powder into a mug of water and helped Emilie to a position to drink it.
Gygr sat on the other bed and watched the girl drink the potion. She looked up to see Bris staring at her.
“Faulting yourself again?” He sat on the chair and pushed Emilie’s hair from her face. The girl lay on her stomach already sleeping.
The warrior held up her hand when he looked to speak, “don’t go there Bris.”
“Let’s look at your wounds.”
Gygr removed the armor, boots, bracers and then her leather outertunic. She pulled her undertunic off and winced.
Bris shook his head. “How on earth did you get that?”
“Yes Gygr I can honestly say it’s bad. Slightly larger than your hand over the middle of your back. Most of the top layers of skin is gone.”
“Must have happened when the roof came down over us.” She swallowed at the pain caused by the air hitting the open wound.
“Lay on the bed and I’ll clean it. There are still pieces of your tunic imbedded inside.” He watched her lay face down on the bed as he mixed some of the potion into a mug for her. “Here it will help with the pain.”
“Trust me Gygr she’s not waking up for quite some time,” he guessed.
Bris, a tad roughly, cleaned the wounds and applied salve to them. “Gygr I don’t want to put a bandage on your back until the skin heals a bit more.”
“That means no clothes or at least no top.”
She looked up and nodded her head. “How long?”
“I’ll ask Delia to send some food up for you and Emilie. You both really need to eat.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Gygr lay her head on the bed and fell asleep. Bris shook his head, “warriors,” then stepped from the room and closed the door behind him.
When Gygr awoke it was dusk. “Gods,” and pushed herself up from the bed. She used the chamber pot in the corner and washed her hands in the bowl on the table. The warrior stoked the fire and watched the flames curl around the wood and begin to warm the room.
“Hannibal,” Emilie whispered, “Hannibal come on.” The girl began to whimper and cry, “please come on.” She began to thrash about the bed.
Gygr rushed to her side and stroked her forehead which was still black and blue. “You're safe Emilie. Hannibal is safe.” The warrior hummed as she gently pushed the long golden hair from the girl’s face. Emilie calmed and soon her breathing slowed and Gygr knew she was again asleep.
She pulled an apple from the bowl of fruit and leaned back into the chair. Immediately she sprang forward. She settled back again resting against her shoulders so her burn would not touch the chair. It wasn’t very comfortable but felt better when she rested her feet on Emilie’s bed. She tossed the apple core into the fire and closed her eyes. I really should go back to the bed.
The warrior felt something cut into her thigh and opened her eyes. Emilie’s fingers gripped her and her nails were drawing blood.
“Help me please, don’t make me go.” Emilie sobbed. “I’ll be good. I promise.”
“Emilie you're safe.” Gygr knelt beside the bed and stroked the girl’s cheek. “You're safe. I won’t make you go anywhere you don’t want to. It’s all right.”
“Please, please,” sobs tore through the girl’s throat.
Gygr lifted her and sat on the bed and held the girl in her arms. “It’s all right.” She rocked her and hummed and held the frightened girl all night.
Gygr’s eyes fluttered open. Way past dawn. Emilie still slept in her arms and she carefully settled the girl onto the bed and stretched. Her muscles were stiff. That was a fact of life. My life anyway. They’ll feel better later. Her blisters were healed and she felt the soft skin on her back where the night before there was an open wound. Still a fast healer. Sure comes in handy.
Outside she heard the bustle of activity. Quickly she dressed in a light tunic, grabbed her sword then quietly left the room. Tang was overseeing the prisoners as they cleared the wreckage of the stable. She noted some prisoners still walked very slowly and carefully but all were working. None looked directly at her.
The villagers had caught the horses the raiders had used and decided to sell them to pay for rebuilding both the stable and the tavern. Several men had already left for Bryn hoping to return before nightfall with much needed building supplies. The Nicopolians had decided to keep the militia as guards outside of town and had actually requested permission from Gygr to do so.
“This is you’re town. You don’t need anyone’s permission to protect yourself.” She’d said, “I’ll ask Tang if he will give you some tips though.” And the villagers were overjoyed.
Wherever they went the former gladiators were thanked. Children gave them flowers, women gave them food. Desserts were a favorite. Men tried to push money into their hands. It was getting downright embarrassing. And when the Nicopolians figured that out everything stopped. The three breathed a sigh of relief.
By the end of the day both the debris from the stable and tavern had been cleared. The prisoners were given food and water and settled to sleep in the now cleared area where the stable had stood. Twenty village men who started calling themselves a part of the Nicopolis Militia would take turns standing guard. The group returned from Bryn with supplies so the building could begin the following morning. Smiles were everywhere. The prisoners faces being the only exception to that. And Gygr’s.
Emilie felt better too. The blisters were reducing in size and scabs were forming over her other wounds. That evening Emilie felt good enough to give in to the parade of villagers who’d come by to visit and added requests for stories. Each told what they’d experienced in the battle and they all knew Emilie would make a story of it.
Villagers settled on the ground most sitting on covers brought from home and a chair was set up for Emilie. Several heavy bear skins were tossed over to make it more comfortable for the healing girl. A light linen was over those. Delia sat beside her with water and little treats neighbors had brought and after almost every child hugged the girl, most giving her kisses as well, everyone settled quietly waiting for the stories. Gygr and her men sat amongst the prisoners, an added comfort to the Nicopolian militia who wanted to listen as well.
Emilie smiled and leaned carefully against the soft chair. “I’m not really a bard. You all know that. I really haven’t had time to put together a story about the battle.” She smiled, “so much happened and there were so many heroes.” The villagers smiled at each other. “I want to make sure I get everything in. So if you’ll wait a couple of days I hope to have something you’ll enjoy and,” she flashed a small smile to Gygr, “be accurate.” Emilie took a sip of water. “But since nearly everyone is here anyway I have other stories. Some absolutely accurate stories about Gygr, as a matter of fact.”
Villagers turned to the warrior, smiled and nodded to her unaware of the discomfort they were causing. Emilie briefly glanced her way and began. After the fourth story it was very clear Emilie was close to exhaustion. Delia shooed people away urging them to go home. “Tomorrow we rebuild the stable. You’re all going to need your strength. So go home and sleep.”
Bris carried Emilie back to the inn and settled the girl into the bed. “You do realize, Little One, Gygr is going to blame me for all those stories.”
“She won’t hurt you?” Emilie was suddenly frightened.
“Not physically,” he chuckled. “But she does have a way with words. And she knows far too many languages to say them in.”
Gygr sat at the back of the inn nursing an ale when Delia approached. The woman sat opposite. “Mind moving just a bit. I like to see the door.” Gygr motioned her hand in front wriggling her fingers to the side. Delia slid the chair to her right and Gygr approved.
They were silent and uncomfortable. “We . . all appreciate you taking such good care of Emilie.” The tavern owner began. She was a small woman with brown hair flecked with gray. Her eyes a brown Gygr always associated with Bris. His skin was the same color and Gygr had always thought it beautiful. “I understand you and your friends will be leaving us in a few days.”
“Going after the slavers?”
“Some of the younger men would like to join you.”
“Yeah. I’ve already been approached by several.”
“You’ll take them then?”
“I have no control over other people, Delia. If they want to come I won’t stop them.”
“How about Emilie?”
“Emilie? I . .”
“She wants to go with you as well. Will you let her go with you?”
“Wasn’t aware she wanted to.”
“She does. She’s asked for her freedom so she can go with you.”
“We thought you knew?” The woman closed her eyes and held her hands tightly on the table. “Emilie was property of Nicopolis.” The woman quickly held up her hand to stop Gygr. “Let me explain.” She took a deep breath and thought. “About five years ago a family came through here. They bought supplies, had Kosta shoe their horses. It seemed a prosperous family and we thought nothing about letting them have what they needed on credit. Actually we all thought, probably even hoped, they’d settle here. They stayed a full month. They seemed caring and spent lots of time with their children, four sons and a daughter.” She took a drink from the mug a server had set down and glanced furtively at the warrior across from her.
“So when we woke up one morning to find they’d gone we were rather disappointed. That turned to anger when we finally figured out between us that the town had been taken for over two thousand sengli in supplies, food, smith work, carpentry, tavern expenses, . .” She took another big swig and swallowed. “We searched their rooms in case they may have left anything of value and we found their daughter. She had a note they’d written asking we accept Emilie as payment for their bill to the town. The note indicated they would return for the child. They called her ‘our fair-haired beauty’.”
“Emilie?” Gygr felt her stomach lurch.
“Look, we didn’t want a slave. But she was young and no one wanted to just leave her on her own. We all felt rather responsible for her. It was agreed she would live with me and help out around the village. And for five years she’s been the one person every one of us could count on to help. When a woman gives birth it is Emilie who takes care of her and her family until she’s able. When someone is sick Emilie nurses them to health.” Delia shook her head slowly. “She’s always considered herself a slave of Nicopolis.”
“What does Nicopolis consider her?”
“As a valued member of our community. But we aren’t stupid. Emilie needs more than we can give her. She has a good mind and here it will only go to waste. And hard as that might be, we know and understand that.” The woman reached across the table to touch Gygr’s hand. The warrior flinched and pulled it back. “We love her as a daughter and we talked about it. If Emilie wants to go with you we will let her. But we must have your word she will be safe.”
“What if I don’t want to take her?”
“Emilie has a way of getting what she wants. Last year her family returned. They took her back with them. Next morning she was back in the tavern doing her usual chores. The family returned again and again. Each time she returned and begged us not to let them take her. Finally they came with the DeSmet city army. We showed them the note they’d left and it was adjudged she was the property of Nicopolis.” The tavern owner smiled. “I suspect that she’d just follow you.”
“No. I don’t own slaves.”
“Slaves? We aren’t offering a slave. We’re granting the wish of someone we dearly love. She wants to go with you. She wants adventure. She wants to be with someone closer to her own age. She wants more than we will ever be able to give her. And we want her to have it. Emilie is not a slave to be given to you. We have emancipated her. Whether she believes it to be true is not relevant. What is true is that if we did not think she would be safe with you and your friends there would be no discussion here.” The woman swallowed. “Gygr. Most of us in Nicopolis were slaves at one point in our life. We don’t want our Emilie to look back when her hair is turning gray wishing she’d had other opportunities in life.” She stood and looked down at the warrior, “please at least have the courtesy to think about it.”
Gygr sat alone. She saw the quick glances of villagers who then turned away. She was about to get up when Bris and Tang Te slid into chairs. “Yeah, I know.” Tang moved to the side of the table, “want to keep an eye on the door.”
“Fine,” Bris swallowed his ale. “Healing up nicely.”
Tang cleared his throat, “guess they finally asked?”
“Yeah, what a shocker.” Gygr shook her head slowly.
“The shock to me is that she actually wants to leave.” Bris took another deep swallow and Gygr got the sense he was on his way to getting drunk.
“The shock to me is that she actually likes Gygr.” Two heads shot up and four eyes flashed into his. “Uh, come on. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” the woman whispered. “I don’t know if I like that.”
“So,” Bris emptied his fifth ale and lifted the sixth from the server's hand. “The great Gygr does not want people to actually see she is human after all.”
“You’re drunk Bris.”
“Yes Little One, I am,” the man burped. “And loving every minute of it. And when I’m with a woman I love every minute of that. And when I fight I love every minute of that.” He turned glazing eyes to the warrior. “What do you love Gygr?”
She started to get up and strong fingers pulled her down. She looked into the man's eyes and flinched. Sometimes the old Bris would surface and she knew what he could do.
“Bris,” she pulled the fingers from her arm. “I . . I.”
“I’m checking the prisoners,” Tang quickly rose and departed.
“What Gygr? Afraid to say you like the kid? I know you do. I know she likes you.”
“Bris,” she hurt inside. How could she explain?
“Afraid she too will die?”
Gygr took a quick breath. “Yes,” he barely heard her. “They all do Bris.” The woman stared at her hands on the table and tightened her lips.
He patted her hand, “Gygr, Gygr. We all die. What is important is how we live. Do we live for ourselves trying to follow our own path beating our own drum as we go? Or do we follow the path someone sets us on never deviating from it even if the opportunity should come?” He finished his ale and took several swallows from the next. “Emilie just wants to be allowed the chance to take another path. She may not stay with us long. But it is her decision. We have the opportunity to give her the freedom to choose. You cannot deny her that simply because you are afraid.” He finished his ale as he took the next one the server set before him.
“What about Tang and Bal?”
Bris chuckled, “we all do what you want.” His eyes darkened and settled on Gygr’s blue ones, “you cannot control everyone Little One. Emilie will come with us if she so chooses, with or without your consent.” He slapped his hand on the table. “Now go to bed.”
“Is that an order?” The warrior smiled.
“Yes. Not that you take my orders anymore, but that is an order.”
“Yes Bris,” she rose, bent over and kissed the man on the forehead leaving him to finish the hard work of getting plastered.
“Gygr,” Emilie’s voices floated in the room as the warrior added wood and gently blew on the still red coals until a flame flickered licking the fuel.
“You angry because I told those stories about you?” She sounded frightened.
Gygr heard the girl release a long breath. “I’m glad. I just wanted people to hear nice stories about you.”
“I don’t think telling them about killing seven gladiator trainees was quite the way I would have done it.”
“How would you have done it?”
“I wouldn’t. I don’t tell stories.”
“But the others were nice stories. About the kittens you saved and about the girls you protected.”
“Emilie,” Gygr turned to the girl and looked into a completely open and trusting face. “Yeah.” She sat on her bed and began untying her boots, “they were good. I wasn’t aware Bris knew about those.”
“Figures,” she dropped the second boot and lifted the tunic tossing it on the chair. “Gods I’m tired.”
“Yeah.” She turned over and was asleep in minutes.
The warrior opened her eyes and looked quickly around the room. Night. Right, still in Nicopolis. She took deep breaths until her heart slowed then rose and tossed another log onto the fire. She sat in the chair and watched Emilie sleep.She’d heard the crying. A baby. Who would hide a baby in the woodpile? Gygr set her wooden training sword aside and followed the sound. Yeah, it’s coming from the woodpile. She bent down and looked between the logs. She saw furry little paws and pink noses. “Kittens!”
Eight-year-old Gygr heard the growl behind her and turned to see Wist, his dog pulling at the chain eager to find the source of the scent. “Get out. You’re supposed to be on the field with the others.” The man lifted a cat-o-nine-tails and beat the child forcing her back to the field where she picked up her training sword and again swung at the pig bladders. She could hear the cries of the kittens. As long as I can hear them they’re alive.
Eventually she saw Wist and his dog retreat from the area without their prey and the girl laughed to herself. “What is so funny,” Bris stood over her.
“Uh, nothing Bris.”
“Gygr, when you fail to concentrate you know I must discipline you.”
“Yes Bris,” she looked down at her feet.
He tossed a sack down. “There are rats amongst those logs.” He pointed with his chin to the large pile of thick logs the trainees used in strength training. “Catch them.” He abruptly turned and walked away toward another trainee, “Tang Te . .”
The logs were heavy. It took all night for Gygr to move them and catch the kittens. As dawn lightened the sky Gygr grabbed the last kitten, a quick calico, and dropped it into the sack tying the top into a loose knot so they could not escape.
“Still here?” Bris looked down at the exhausted girl.
“They sure move fast, Bris.”
“Good then you at least got some training in. Off to bed with you.” She held out the sack to the man. “You keep them. I am not a lover of, . . uh, rats.”
“Gosh Bris, thanks,” she smiled brighter than he had seen in the four years she’d been in the training camp and the man blinked wetness from his eyes and turned away. “Damn soot.”
Gygr, as the only female, had a room of her own. It was small but no one was allowed there. It was a punishable offense. That didn’t stop them from trying. Especially Menden and his friends. They were an unruly lot. They openly despised her. Gygr knew there was a bet amongst most of the trainees and it had something to do with her. But she never could figure out the specifics. Over the years she’d developed a habit of keeping her emotions in check. It seemed to make a difference. If she was injured and didn’t show it her opponent could not feel satisfied. No satisfaction, no reason to try to hurt her every time they practiced.
Hegnar, the camp cook, let her take extra milk to her room. Among the slaves who worked in the camp it was not uncommon for Gygr to get extra privileges. They had all become attached to the child not only because she was the youngest but also because she was the only girl.
Menden heard the sounds when he sneaked into the room. He found them under the bed laying on the sack a small bowl of milk beside them. He watched them lick each other and grabbed one. He lifted the gray and white squirming kitten by the tail then swung it viciously against the floor. Blood oozed from the broken skull and Menden chuckled.
He pulled the sack and tossed the five remaining kittens into it. “Guys, look what I got.” Menden showed his friends the kittens and they laughed.
The girl found the dead kitten and sat beside it for a long time. Menden.
Cristov raced into her room, “Gygr they have your kittens. And . . and . . I think you should come.”
They raced onto the field and watched in horror. The four boys had hung the kittens by a paw or tail and were setting them afire with a torch.
“No,” Gygr screamed and ran to the group. Menden held the torch toward her and she just kept going barreling into him and knocking him to the ground. She swung her fists into his face as he tried to fend off the blows. Large hands pulled her away and held her and she turned her head to see Bris and Tang Te. Cristov cut down the kittens who were unharmed and settled them gently into the sack. Mercifully he put his knife into the two who were burning, killing them instantly.
Gygr turned back to Menden who now stood before her, his hands clenched and teeth bared. “One day I’ll kill you,” he hissed.
“The day you try will be the last day you breathe,” she said softly. When the boy launched himself toward her she kicked at him. That was when Gygr discovered exactly where every man's weakness was. Menden fell to his knees holding himself as he yelled in agony.
Gygr wore an old heavy tunic and worked with the prisoners and villagers as they began building the new stable. She organized the men into teams each responsible for a side of the building. Women helped Delia keep the laborers hydrated with plenty of water and cider. Prisoners and villagers laughed as jokes were tossed back and forth to see who could tell the best joke, the best dirty joke, the best clean joke and the best absolutely stupid joke. No one seemed to care that most were absolutely stupid dirty jokes. But then that wasn’t the point. By midday the frame was up and they stopped and ate.
The new stable would be larger than the old one and Jerome had ideas of breeding horses so the stable would include a corral both in front and behind. Nicopolis had decided to set aside an area to build larger corrals and eventually another stable to allow for expansion if the idea proved successful.
Quella leaned toward Tang as they ate, “if I lived in a village like this I wouldn’t be here with these other idiots.” He flashed his eyes at Fallas and Kel.
“What would you be doing?”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Our crop was burned by raiders and we owed the town merchants. We lost everything. I found my step father at the bottom of a cliff one morning.” He shook his head, “bastards.” The young man stared at his hands and tightened the left corner of his lips.
“So Gygr,” Jerome sat across from the warrior, “how far you think we’ll get today?”
“Want to get the roof up. Tomorrow a team can finish on the sides, lofts and stalls while we start on the tavern.”
The man nodded as he listened. After the meal the building again began in earnest. Men stood as medium length beams were lifted by rope to the top. At the top and bottom the ends of two were cut at a 45° angle and men leaned the two together in the center of the front and back sides while dowels were pounded into holes to hold them at the top of what would be the front and rear of the new stable. Below Thadius finished chipping out a 90° angle that would allow both ends of the huge long beam to fit over the corners of the shorter beams allowing for the high roof. Thick dowels were pounded into holes running along the top of the sides and short narrower beams with holes in the bottom were settled and pounded over the dowels.
Men set up temporary beams and crossbeams that would be used to hoist the very top beam into place.
Now only brute strength was required to pull the long beam to the top and settle it over the angled ones. Kel and Bris watched the beam ascend inside the structure while men at the ends pulled on the ropes which hung over the sides. The idea was to get the large beam up diagonally then swing it onto the top of the sides until a structure was built to allow them to hoist it into place. “Careful now,” Bris looked up and saw the beam clear at his end. “Clear here.”
“Okay fellas one last push and we’ve got this one up. It’s all downhill from there.” Kel smiled.
Gygr watched from her station at the top where she would be one of the team to settle the final beam into place. Her eye caught the fraying of rope and she looked down to see Bris just below. “Bris,” she yelled down to her friend.
Kel had been watching and noticed the frayed rope as well and he ran and leaped slamming his body into Bris just before the beam fell with a crunch into his chest. Gygr leaped down and knelt beside Kel who looked into her eyes before his own went dark. Gygr swallowed the lump in her throat but it kept returning. “Gods.” Kel didn’t move.
Bris turned, pushed himself up and swiveled on his knees. “Saved my damn life.”
Jerome stood and looked at the scene. “Think we should stop today. I know I can’t go on.” He lowered his head and turned to walk away.
“No.” Gygr felt her body shake inside and prayed it didn’t show. “We’re finishing the roof. Now.”
The teams gathered and lifted the beam from Kel’s body then returned to the task at hand. They got the beam up, nailed the last of the roof boards to the beams and completed what they had planned for the day. Only then did Gygr allow them to toss the tools aside and return to their homes for the late meal.
The following day there were no accidents. Two teams were assigned to complete the interior of the stable while the other two teams began assembling the sides of what would become the new tavern. Spirits of the teams were low each remembering the death of Kel the day before and there was little banter back and forth. The raiders felt the greatest loss. Kel had been their leader and a father figure to the many younger men. The Nicopolians were divided. Those who suffered a loss during the battle did not regard the man's death as a particularly bad thing. Others who watched as Kel unselfishly pushed Bris to safety at the cost of his own life were more willing to acknowledge the loss of a life, any life, was tragic and not to be gloated over.
Bris had disappeared.
Although Emilie was healing nicely neither Delia nor Gygr would allow her to resume any of her normal chores. Instead a place was set up outside under the large oak tree at the center of town where she entertained the children while their parents either worked on the rebuilding effort, in the fields or assisting Delia with preparation of meals for the workers.
Gygr checked on the militia guards at the outskirts of town then returned to the raider camp to investigate. She wasn’t sure if she would find anything that could lead her to Malador. It had turned out only Fallas and Kel had any worthwhile information about the man. She knew he had a base of operation somewhere to the east. Neither man knew the location. Their 'merchandise' was taken to Pardi where they would join others captured for the same reason. When all the merchandise was finally brought together a separate band would take them to their final destination. No one knew where that was. The raiders would leave and start the process again.
Gygr began to formulate a plan. It was obvious that there were only two ways to locate Malador and ultimately the buyer for the slaves. According to Kel thousands of slaves were transported at a time. That meant either slaves were dying quickly and had to be replaced or need for slaves was urgent. Gygr could think of only one place that used slaves till they dropped and then replaced them. The mines. Mine owners didn’t care if they used children in their operations. If new mines were opening that would necessitate the need for more slaves. Perhaps this is a mining operation that was prospering and needed more bodies to expand. That would explain the tens of thousands of sengli the raiders made on each trip.
No wonder poor farm boys become slavers. Money’s darn good. Only one man had the means to mount an operation that had to include transport by sea. Jauka. Gygr was certain there were no large mines in Alaistria. The country was rich in timber and forests abounded the place. It was poor in minerals. Doria and Creanistri she knew were rich with mineral deposits just about anywhere you could spit.
If the slaves were headed for Doria the most logical port of embarkation would be Panadol or El Sofar. There were only two ports in Doria the one at Port Misery was the most likely destination. This time of year Doak would be pounded by storms. Port Misery was more sheltered from such bad weather. Chances were El Sofar would suffer the same bad weather as Doak. Panadol and Port Misery. They would be her primary focus.
By sunset the stable was completed. The tavern would take another couple of days. Gygr was the first to board her mount in the new stable and led him to the largest stall. The warrior took her time brushing Hannibal and combing his mane and tail. He was still the most beautiful horse she’d ever seen.
She patted her friend on his big neck and kissed him on his long face. “Hey boy think you might want a girl friend? How’d you like to be a daddy?”Bris made her close her eyes and she thought it was silly. “No Little One it is a surprise.”
“A surprise? Like when someone attacks from behind?”
“No,” he chuckled, “this is a good surprise. You will like it. I promise.” He led her by standing behind and holding her shoulders propelling the 14-year-old, turning her round and round, anything so she could not even suspect where he was taking her. “Do you know where you are Little One?”
“No Bris. I’m sorry. I couldn’t keep track you were going so fast and turned me so often.”
“This is not a test Gygr. Do not worry. This is a surprise and sometimes for a surprise it is important you not know where you are going.”
“Well Bris, then it seems I’ll have two surprises.”
“Two Little One?”
“Yes, the surprise of where I’ll be when you show me the surprise of what you want to show me.”
They stopped and Gygr smelled the stable. Well there goes that surprise. “Do you know where you are Little One?”
“In the stable.” She smiled.
Bris dropped his shoulders. Trying to surprise this girl was a mistake. She could probably tell him which horses were currently stabled. “Keep your eyes closed.” He removed the blindfold and kneeled beside her so he could see her face.
“You may open your eyes now.”
She didn’t say a word for the longest time. The horse was pure white. His eyes blue and he nosed her in the chest pushing her lightly. “Oh Bris, he’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen.”
“He is yours Little One.”
“Mine,” she whispered. For ten years she had been on Inferno Island training to fight, kill in every way imaginable and then asked to think of new ways. She had been given food to keep her alive, physicians assistance to keep her healthy, clothes to keep her covered and shelter to keep her housed. She had been assigned weapons that weren’t hers, armor that didn’t fit and helmets that fell off. She had never, ever been given a gift. The girl had not cried in ten years and it took every bit of self control not to cry at this moment. “Bris.” She turned to the man who had known her longer than her own family and threw her arms around his neck.
“His name is Hannibal. And he is yours. Your property Gygr. When you leave us he will go with you.”
“Because today is the day you have completed your training. Next week you will go to Creantlisto where you will participate in the games.”
“Aren’t you coming too?”
“That is not for me to decide Little One. Like you I am a slave and serve Jauka as he wishes.”
“I’m not a slave Bris.” She said it so softly the man was not sure he heard correctly.
“We are all owned by Jauka Little One. The master tells us what to do and where to go. He owns our lives and can take if from us at his whim.”
“No one owns me Bris. No one.” She stroked Hannibal down his long face. “And I don’t own Hannibal. He’ll stay with me because he wants to not because I own him.” She turned and kissed the animal on his face and rubbed noses with him. She turned to the man beside her and looked up at him. “You know Bris I could have left here a long time ago.”
“Little One? I do not understand.”
“Nothing is escape proof. I could have left whenever I chose. I just didn’t.”
“Why not Little One,” he decided to humor her.
“Because I didn’t want to leave you or Tang or Cristov. You were my only friends.” She turned to leave the stable then turned back to face Bris, “thank you for Hannibal. I’ll take good care of him forever.” She hugged the big man again and ran out before tears could again threaten to fall.
Hannibal shook his head and snorted.
“Not ready yet huh? Well think about it.” She settled beside the stallion on the fresh straw and threw her arm over her eyes. Two deep breaths later she was asleep.
Gygr was up before dawn and spent time practicing her sword moves before heading to the inn and the morning meal. Emilie was already eating at Gygr’s favorite table although the girl made sure to keep the warrior’s favorite seat free.
When the former gladiator sat Delia immediately placed a pitcher of goat milk and a mug before her. “Heard you don’t like porridge. I can heat some venison stew from last night or I got . . .”
“Venison stew will be fine.” Gygr filled the mug with milk and emptied it in three swallows.
Delia shrugged, “be just a few minutes.” The tavern owner glanced at Emilie, winked then left.
“So you want to come with us.” Gygr mumbled.
Emilie sat up, “yes.”
“Excuse me?” Emilie leaned toward the warrior. “Like this village didn’t go through a bit of danger just last week?” Emilie chuckled.
“That was nothing compared to what can happen on the road.”
“Can you guarantee the safety of anyone in this village?”
Gygr stiffened, “Of course not.”
“Exactly. No one can. Look at that fella that died. He survived the battle and ended up getting smashed by a beam. No one ever knows what can happen. No one can guarantee safety.”
“I’m just saying the chances of something bad happening is greater on the road than here.”
“Oh. So you plan on settling in Nicopolis?”
“No.” Gygr shouted a little louder than she’d wanted.
“So why is it all right for you to travel on the road and not me?”
“Because I can protect myself.”
“Fine. You go. I’ll go my own way. By myself.”
“By yourself?” Gygr whispered loudly.
“Yeah. By myself.”
“You could get hurt. Killed.”
“Yeah. But you won’t be around to know about it so it shouldn’t bother you.” Emilie stood just as Delia brought the stew, bread and another pitcher of milk to the table.
“Sit down.” Gygr hissed.
Emilie sat down and watched as the warrior ate in her usual haste. Doesn’t she ever taste the food?
“Why do you want to come with us?” Gygr wiped the milk mustache from her lips with the back of her hand.
“Because you’re here and soon you’ll be leaving. And you seem nice.”
“Nice?” Gygr rolled her eyes, “I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being nice.”
“That’s too bad. Because you are. In your own sorta way that is.”
The warrior looked up to see Tang Te standing beside the table. “Yeah?”
“Bal is back.” He smiled at Emilie whose neck began to redden.
“Camped with about a hundred men about a league north of here.” The young man took a seat beside Emilie and turned to her, “hello, nice to see you’re doing better.”
“What’s he doing out there?”
Tang returned his attention to the warrior, “I have absolutely no idea. And I thought it odd he was able to find so many men so quickly. Am I missing something here Gygr?”
“If you are so am I. But Abumarn is probably packed with men looking for something to do. Maybe Bal just got lucky.”
Gygr and Tang rose as one when they heard the sound of horses outside. They both raced to the door weapons ready only to be confronted by several men coming through the door with swords drawn. The soldiers spread throughout the room and more entered. “Hi Gygr.” Balador stood at the door a big grin on his face. He nodded to a man that slipped behind her. Everything went black when the hilt of a sword slammed against the back of her head.
Copyright 1999 by Frances
All Rights Reserved.