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Nanette fights to protect her sister, although her actions are useless against the wall of strong men, both armed and dangerous. One man admires her spirit. He asks his leader if he can keep her as his slave.
Thinking fast, Nanette announces that her fourteen-year-old sister Suzanna is only twelve. Suzanna finds herself adopted into a new family, where she is welcomed and protected. Nanette, however, learns that anything other than immediate and absolute obedience is dealt with swiftly and severely. At first, she tries to make the best of a bad situation, but soon Nanette comes to crave his touch, to find comfort in his discipline. But will she ever be anything more to him that just his slave?
“Shush! Suzanna, they'll hear you!”
“I don't care!” My sister swatted at the mosquitoes swarming around her and swore.
I jerked back around, hissing between my teeth. “Dammit, Suzanna, shut up!” Shimmying forward again, I raised the battered binoculars. There they were. The guards to the village. I scanned the top edge of the fence, looking for the name. HodgePodge. Dammit. I slid down, flopping onto my back. Dammit.
“What is it?”
“We're not there yet.”
“Why? What is this one?”
My sister wrinkled her nose. “Stupid name.”
I agreed. “Stupid name.”
“You sure they didn't just rename Caladonia?”
I bit my lip, thinking about it. The weaker villages changed hands frequently, as various warlords took them over. I flipped around onto my belly and shimmied back towards the top of the little crest of land. The palisade didn't look that new. There were some old burn marks here and there, and a few replacement logs, but it didn't look like it had been destroyed and rebuilt, which it would have had to be, if it had been won in a battle. At least, I thought so. I'd never seen a battle up close. But once, on the way here, we'd watched from a far vantage point as a horde swooped in and set fire to everything in reach in the village we were heading to. We'd taken the long way around.
I eyed the towers on the corners. The sentries were all wearing blue and brown. The same colors as the tattered flag flapping in the breeze. “It doesn't look like it.”
“Let me see.”
I sighed, and handed over the binoculars. Suzanna squirmed forward and looked. After a long moment, in which I had to flick off no less than three creepy crawlies, she slid back down to me. “I guess you're right.”
It shouldn't gall me, that my little sister no longer trusted my word or opinion immediately. But it did. She was five years younger � a teenager, all of fourteen, with the know-it-all attitude that came with the age. My mother would have shaken her head and petted my hair, then done the same to Suzanna. Girls, she would have said. You have to trust each other. I remembered her rings, the ones she said we'd have when we were grown. They matched, just like Suzanna and I did. Was she wearing them when she woke us up to flee? I didn't remember them on her hands, something that would have seemed strange had not the entire morning been strange and awful.
I bit back a whimper. Not knowing what happened to her... it ate a hole in my heart. I took the binoculars back. “We're going to have to take the north side. I don't see a good path around to the south � there's not enough cover.”
“Can't we just go in?” Her whining was going to be the death of me, I swear.
“No way. You remember what Daddy said. You have to assume the worst. If you don't know for sure that the people in a village will defend you, don't get near them. Getting trapped inside is a prison sentence, or worse. Fleeing from them, in the depths of the swamp, gives you a chance.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. I'd had many opportunities to repeat Daddy's words since we'd left home. She knew just as well as I did how dangerous it could be to get captured. My heart ached � I needed my daddy, dammit. He'd know just what to do.
I took a deep breath. No matter how annoying she could be, Suzanna was my responsibility. “Then we're going to have to get far enough away from here. We can't risk them seeing the smoke, you know that.”
Typical teenager fashion, Suzanna rolled her eyes, but started crawling down the slope, back to where we'd left our packs. Once there, she hefted hers, and we disappeared into the trees.
Hiking through the forests was difficult, if you didn't know how to walk. If you tried to walk the way you did on a road, you were doomed to fail. Instead, you had to walk near the trees, in a sort of zigzag pattern. If you kept your feet on the roots, or nearby, you ran far less risk of sinking into the bog.
Luckily for Suzanna and me, we'd grown up in the forest. There was a river nearby, and Daddy had fished. So we'd grown up with full stomachs and nimble feet.
It was dark by the time I felt safe enough to stop, the crickets and frogs a cacophony that hid the sound of our steps. We found a stream with a dozen varieties of little fish, and set a small net between two rocks. Suzanna climbed the nearest tree, then returned with a handful of branches and a report.
“I think we're directly north of HodgePodge, maybe slightly to the east. The wind is coming our direction, so I think we're going to be okay with the smoke.”
“Thanks.” I pulled out the broken branches I'd collected since the last time we'd built a fire, carrying them in a mesh pack so they'd have a better chance of drying before we needed them next. We settled a few rocks in place and built the fire, working together, like we were supposed to, like we had since she was born.
Once the flame took the dry branches and seemed stable enough, I added the green ones Suzanna had collected. They were dryer than ones on the ground level, but they still smoked and flickered. I checked the net. Four little fish � not much for a meal, but better than nothing. I scooped them out, leaving the net in place, and Suzanna and I each cut two open, gutting and cleaning them as quickly as we could. The entrails went in the fire, and the smoke smelled delicious for a moment. My mouth filled with saliva as I remembered my mother cooking the same way. Suzanna had found tubers along the water, and she cleaned them, dicing them with the knife our father made. The water in the pan had boiled, so I tossed in the tubers, and when they were nearly tender, the fish and a handful of edible leaves.
“That smells so good.”
I nodded, stirring it a bit more than necessary. “You find any more greens?”
She shook her head, eyes on the pot. It wasn't long before we were scooping it into our bowls, then shoveling it into our mouths. I burned my tongue, but I didn't care.
Too soon, the pot was empty, and I washed it, packing everything away except for the net in the stream. We doused the fire and draped a mosquito net over a branch above us. Curled up next to each other, our blankets kept out the worst of the dampness. As tired as I was, I found myself lying awake, staring at the clouds and listening to the night noises.
I shifted, wrapping my arms around my sister. “What?”
“Can you tell me what Daddy said, again?”
I nodded against her hair, the tangles scratchy on my skin. I let myself picture the day, two months ago, that we left our home.
“He woke me up before the sun was up. He said, 'There are people on the way here. Dangerous people, people who will hurt you and your sister if they catch you. You have to wake up. You have to go � now.'”
“And you got up.”
“I got up. And Mom had two packs ready to go. She was so angry � that's when I knew it was serious.”
“What else did Daddy say?”
“You heard him. Mom woke you up too.” She was quiet. “He said 'Run. Go to Torrent and meet us there. Go to Solon first and ask for John Baker. From there go to Caladonia and ask for Simon Tire. They will help you along the way with supplies and protection. As for Hamel Dirk in Torrent. You can stay with him until we get there.'” I kissed the back of her head. “He said, 'Guard Suzanna with your life. Stay out of sight of everyone. Stay out of villages. Stay away from camps and settlements. Don't trust anyone until they prove you can. Trust your instincts.'”
“They both said 'I love you.'”
“Yes, they did.” I paused, taking a deep breath, waiting to see if she would ask.
“And after that?”
“He said 'Mom and I will find you before the year is up. If we don't, we are dead � leave us to the afterlife.'” I bit my lip hard, attempting to still the trembling. “He said, 'Go on, live well, love someone who can protect you. Make me proud.'” I couldn't help it. I always cried. No matter how many times I repeated the words, they still caused tears. In my embrace, my sister cried, too.
Eris. I closed my eyes, seeking the goddess my father used to mention sometimes. Why can't you tell me if they are dead or alive? As usual, there was no reply.
Eventually, we slept.
Morning was brighter than usual. The sun found us beside the stream, piercing the green canopy. I rubbed my eyes and sat up, pulling down the mosquito netting and packing it up, then checking the net. There were six fish this time, and I sent a prayer of thanks to the stream for providing. I kicked Suzanna, and she woke with a grumble, but sat up when I indicated the fish. Cleaning them took no longer than it had the night before, but we didn't risk a fire. Tossing the chunks of raw fish into a pottery jar I poured a little vinegar over them, sealed it, and shook. There. They would keep most of the day like that. We each reached in and took a couple chunks, licking our fingers and resealing the jar. I tucked it carefully into the special pouch in my pack. We shook out our blankets before fastening them around our shoulders like cloaks, and we started walking again.
The day passed as all the days had. Slowly. I fingered the date necklace I wore. There were beads of different colors for each month, and beads of the same color for each day in the month. I had a small clip I placed beside the bead for the day, and I moved it now, marking off another day gone. Two and a half months gone now. Seventy-eight days since we'd started to run. I tried not to think about it, but when you're walking through the forest, there's not much to do. You keep an eye out for boggy ground. You keep an ear and an eye out for running water. You keep an ear and an eye out for crocodiles or other predators. You keep an ear and an eye and your gut tuned for humans � the worst predators. You walk. You stay as quiet as you can. And you try not to make yourself into a complete crazy woman with worrying about your family.
We stopped every so often to rest and take another bite of sour fish. It was flakier than raw, but not as flaky as cooked. I checked the sun and tried to keep us walking on the correct path.
“We should have found Caladonia by now.” Suzanna was slightly ahead of me, to my right. She spoke without looking at me, so I knew she was scared. Even more so, I was scared.
“Yes, we should have.”
“Do you have enough supplies?”
“We'll be fine.”
“What about the vinegar? It looked like the jug was pretty light this morning.”
“Maybe I'm just getting stronger.” There was silence for so long I started to hope she'd accepted my explanation.
“Or maybe you just don't want to tell me you're worried.”
The worry burst out of me before I could stop it. “Of course I'm worried! Who wouldn't be? I'm trying to trek across country with a stupid teenager!”
Her face was red and angry when she stopped and planted her feet. “You're a damn teenager, too, you know! Who made you in charge? I just want to know.” She started to cry, and then I recognized myself, my hatred of uncertainty. I took a halting step, and then folded her in my arms.
“We're running real low on vinegar. I'm afraid we've passed Caladonia. John told us it would only take a few weeks to reach it, and we've been on the way for forty-one days since we left Solon.” Not for the first time I wished I had packed the map properly the last time we'd had to ford one of the bigger streams. Water had damaged it severely, and every time I got it out it was worse � by last week it had been completely useless. “I don't think there's anything we can do except keep going, and try to find Torrent. We have each other. We have equipment. We won't starve to death as long as there's fish in the water, and, like Daddy says, there's always fish in the water.” Suzanna shifted, and I could feel her start to smile. “Even if we have to stop more often to fish, if we can't keep it in the vinegar, all it means is that it will take us longer to get there. Not a huge deal.” I pushed her back, catching her eyes. “Okay?”
She nodded, taking a deep breath and scrubbing her face with the tattered cuff of her sleeve. “Okay.”
Of course, as those who remember Eris know, life has never gone as planned. It was two days later when my life, as I knew it then, ended.
“Watch out.” I held back the brambles for Suzanna, pressing forward. I could hear the stream; we hadn't eaten since the day before. It was hilly here. It had been too long since we were near enough to water to fish. It was getting late, and we needed to find a place to camp.
“I see it.”
The stream turned out to be a river, much larger than I'd thought at first. We rushed to it, grateful for the water and the fish. I unfolded the net and we scouted along the bank, looking for a good spot to set it up. We'd just placed it and started to unpack for the night when I saw it. A small fence made of chain, no higher than a handspan, disappearing into the brush on either side. I hadn't noticed it when we'd crossed it the first time � and it seemed to follow the river, at least in this area. A prickle started along my spine as I stood up, trying to trace its compass with my eyes. I'd never seen anything like it before, but it was man-made. Man made fences � ones that were not completely degraded in the years since the bombardment that nearly destroyed civilization � might mean there were men about. I swung around, scanning the river as far as I could see either direction. There was nothing. But I still couldn't shake the prickle that was telling me something wasn't right. “I think we need to go.”
“But I'm starving! I just got the blankets set up. We'll be protected here, under the willow.”
I turned again, looking for the edge of the fence, but try as I might I couldn't tell where it crossed the river. It wasn't possible that the entire river was inside it, was it? My belly clenched, and I felt my heart speed up.
“Something is wrong. Suzanna, something is very, very wrong. We need to get out of here. Now!” My voice had risen as unreasoning panic set in, and she paused, then caught sight of my face. She started stuffing everything back in the pack, and heaved it onto her shoulders. I took her hand and we both started to run, back the way we'd come.
“What about the net?” The net! Without that, we'd have a much harder time feeding ourselves.
“Keep going, I'll get it. I'll be right back.”
I tried to pry her fingers off me, but she held fast, her face white and terrified.
“No! Don't leave me!”
I took a deep breath and we ran back to the net. I snatched it out, folding the frame up and stuffing it in my pack, lone captured flopping fish and all. It would suffocate soon enough. We had just turned to run again when I crashed into a man. Suzanna screamed, and I stumbled back, wildly searching for a way out. Darting to the right, dragging her with me, he moved too quickly and cut off our escape. Encumbered by the packs, we weren't nearly as nimble as we needed to be. I darted to the left, but Suzanna and I collided and went down, a flailing pile of limbs. His hand closed on my arm and dragged me upright.
“You're on our property.”
Another man appeared behind him, a weapon of some sort in his hands.
“No!” I panted, holding tight to Suzanna, who knelt on the ground, sobbing. “No! I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Here � I'll give you back the fish from your river. We'll leave now. No trouble. No trouble at all. I'm sorry.” I tried to shake him off, so I could reach the fish in my pack, but his grip didn't budge. I didn't dare let go of Suzanna. “Please sir. I'm so sorry. We're just passing through. We don't want any trouble. We'll leave now.” I had avoided his eyes until now, but finally I looked up, hoping my pleas had reached him.
His eyes were hot, and hungry, and somehow I didn't think it was for fish. My stomach dropped. I gasped, then fought hard against his grip. I let go of Suzanna, and tried to pry his fingers off. It didn't do a bit of good. In terror and frustration, I bit him. His flesh was salty sweet, thick in my mouth as I dug my teeth into his forearm. He didn't let go � instead he slapped me with his free hand, hard, hard enough to daze me and I sank down, Suzanna's hysterical screams echoing in my ears.
“You're coming with me.”
My begging fell on deaf ears, and I found myself relieved of my pack, which the other man stowed in a boat I hadn't seen, camouflaged in the reeds. The first man took Suzanna's pack, and for a moment we were alone and unbound. I grabbed her hand and jerked her to her feet, and we ran for the bushes we'd come through the first time. He got there first and caught me around the waist, lifting me up while I kicked and beat at his arms with my fists. Suzanna stood frozen, terrified of the man, terrified of being alone.
“Go! Run! I love you!” I screamed at her, willing her to save herself. But would she even survive? Without our equipment, no net, no pot, no blanket... nothing. Would she be able to live, all on her own? She remained rooted to the spot. The man shoved me into the broad bottomed boat, rocking it, then chains were clamped around my wrists and I was caught, face down and bound. I screamed, and his big hand crashed down on my bottom. I shut up, realizing, belatedly, that if we were to be captured, biting and screaming were not the ways to ensure my safety, or that of my sister. The other man stalked towards her, and I rolled onto my side, trying to lever myself up on my elbow to watch. She stood still, petrified, and he scooped her up, tossing her over his shoulder as if she were a feather pillow. He walked back to the river and set her down on the bench in the end of the boat, carefully. Far more gently than I'd been thrown down, and I was grateful.
He spoke to her. “You sit there and behave yourself, and we'll take care of you. Understand?” She nodded, dumb with shock and terror. I worried about the pallor under her tan skin, but I could do nothing about it now.
“Where are you taking us?”
The second man stayed on the shore, and the first sat on the middle bench and started rowing, his massive arms flexing and straightening with each stroke.
“I'm taking you to the governor of this patch of land.”
“Please. Just let us go. We'll be on our way, and he'll never know. We mean no harm. We didn't intend to trespass.”
“But you did.” He paused for a few strokes, regarding me with that intense gaze. “And you bit me. How would I explain that?” I looked then, guilty, as crimson crescents welled on his forearm.
“I'm sorry. I was afraid.”
He smiled then, a predatory smile that made my stomach knot itself together. “You should be.”
I must have dozed, worn out from fighting. I came to with a start, a horrible crick in my neck from the odd angle I lay in at the base of the boat, and met Suzanna's eyes. They were huge with fear, and my heart dropped to my stomach as I realized she was a virgin. Tommy, the son of the other fisherman nearby, had left with his family before she was old enough to want to experiment. The boy I'd fumbled and played with until we'd learned how sex worked and sated our curiosity on each other.
The boat bumped the dock, and suddenly there were more men around us, shouting and talking. I struggled to sit up. A blindfold was wrapped around my eyes and I panicked, kicking and flailing. Hands were carrying me, and I got a leg loose. Twisting out of their hands, I found myself falling. The splash drove the sound out of my ears and the breath out of my lungs. I clamped my lips shut, struggling futilely with the chain on my wrists as water closed over my head. I could feel the current pushing me, sluggish but steady. With the blindfold on, I couldn't even see which way was up, so I kicked, wiggling like an eel, desperate for air. My lungs burned, and spots danced before my eyes. I considered whether drowning would be better than whatever fate the men had in store for me... and decided I could not give up, not while they still had Suzanna. Hands closed on my arms and I was hauled out of the river. I was dumped on my side, my arm and head thumping the wooden pier. Suzanna was screaming again. Suddenly she was at my side, shaking me and sobbing. I coughed, dragging air into my sandpaper lungs.
“I'm fine,” I told her, and she was taken away. I blinked against the wet blindfold, struggling to see who knelt in front of me now.
His voice was deep and he was angry. “Give me one good reason to keep you alive, and not throw you back in for the crocodiles.” My heart beat against my ribs, and I snorted the water out of my nose, sneezing and coughing.
“If you weren't sure, why did you pull me out the first time?” I was genuinely curious, hanging on to any thread that would keep me from remembering that I'd just about been a crocodile snack.
“Jeffrey did that.” His voice turned into a growl. “Against orders.” Jeffrey? I wondered if that was the man who'd captured me. And why would he do such a thing?
“What do you want with me?”
He guffawed. “Too stupid to know she's not the one who should be asking questions.” He stood up. His heavy tread moved away from me, down the pier.
A woman's voice next. “Well, she's here now. Put her in the dungeon.”
Big hands dragged me up while others removed my boots. I started to babble. “My sister. She's only twelve. Please. Don't hurt her. Please. I'll do whatever you say.”
There was a pause in the movement around me, and the woman's voice again. It was softer. “We won't harm the child. Take her to the kitchen.”
My sister's voice. “No! I don't want to leave her!”
I swung my head towards her voice, and put as much authority in it as I could muster. “Suzanna. Go. I am fine. I am a grown woman. You are a child. Do you understand?”
The was a hitch in her sobbing as she realized a little of what I'd said. I prayed she didn't understand all of it, only the part that meant she was safe. I was starting to grasp some of the shape of their honor. They wouldn't rape a child. Me, on the other hand?
A shaky breath. “Yes. I understand.”
There were footsteps, big heavy ones and little stumbling ones. A few of the iron bands on my chest loosened and I took as deep a breath as I could manage. The hands on my body dragged me forward, and I went as willingly as I could. Survival meant pleasing my captors � being useful. And as long as they took care of Suzanna, as long as they didn't harm her, I would do my best to be pleasing and useful.
The dungeon was surprisingly dank and chilly. I was shoved in, and I stumbled, scraping my knees on the concrete ground as I fell, unable to balance with my hands chained behind my back. The door made a final clunking sound as it closed. I sank down, and gave into the fear. Hot tears dampened my blindfold, and my chest shook with sobs. Eventually, I slept.
When I awoke, it was morning. Or at least, it seemed lighter beyond my blindfold. It felt like morning. I realized I must have lost my date necklace to the river, and I spent a moment missing it. Then I stretched as best as I could, my wrists still bound, my joints hurting from a night on an unforgiving surface. Standing up, I nearly lost my balance to lightheadedness, but deep breaths gave me enough strength to straighten. I slid a foot out tentatively, then, when it touched nothing but floor, shuffled forward. Again. Again. I continued until abruptly I stubbed my toe on the far wall, and bit back a cry. Leaning my head forward, I pressed my forehead to the wall and then turned, leaning on it with my right arm. I started to shuffle forward again, determined to learn the shape of my prison, when I ran into something. It was large, and hard, and the smooth planes spoke to me of durability and long use. The further I explored it with my cheek, the more it frightened me. Chains clanked against it, and I shivered. They had called this a dungeon. I wondered if this was a torture device. The door opened behind me, and I jerked away, bumping my head on the wall and startling a cry from me.
It was the woman's voice again. “We're going to get you cleaned up.”
I swallowed, uncertain, and I heard her soft footsteps coming towards me.
“Normally, we take the people we catch in our territory to the village and sell them. But Jeffery seems to have taken an interest in you. He's asked the governor if he can keep you.” I nodded, not sure which was the more horrifying fate. “We'll keep your sister � Suzanna, is it? It's not safe for a girl to wander around alone. We won't harm her. She'll have to work for her keep, of course. But she'll be treated as a daughter, a precious child.” Her finger slid along my grimy face and I flinched back. “Being sold is an uncertain fate. Roy tries to vet the people he sells to � but nothing is certain in this day and age. It is not impossible to fool him, just very difficult.” Four fingertips slid along my face now, caressing my jaw line. I flinched again. “Did he hit you?” I nodded, a hot, shameful feeling in my belly. “I saw the bite on his arm. I'd say you got off lightly.”
I didn't want to be sold � not if it meant I might never see Suzanna again, would be leaving her in the hands of people I didn't know and didn't trust. “Please.” I swallowed hard, my throat dry, and tried again. “Please. I'll be good. I'll please Jeffery.”
She laughed a little. “I dare say he'll be pleased enough for the opportunity to teach you not to bite people bigger and stronger than you.” A cold chill washed over my skin and I shuddered. She tapped my face. “I'll tell Roy you'll be worth keeping.” I nodded, relieved and afraid at the same time.
Her footsteps, and then the door closed. I sagged against the wall, shivering violently. Sinking to my knees, I waited. The door opened again, and I heard masculine grunts. Then the sound of something being set down, and a splash of water. The woman's voice again. “It's warm enough.” Suddenly there were big hands on my arms, hauling me forward. I was placed beside what felt like a huge wooden tub. I could feel the steam rising, and suddenly that seemed like the most glorious, luxurious thing in the world. I'd had nothing but quick dips in the occasional stream since leaving home, and my body ached. My blindfold was taken off, and I blinked, blinded in the sudden light. When I was able to focus again I saw a woman, taller than myself, with a perfect, slim hourglass figure and long black hair. She wore a chain around her slender throat, but given her bearing I wasn't sure if it was a sign of high or low status. A richly colored red linen dress fell gracefully from her shoulders, leaving her arms bare, with another chain wrapped around her waist. She smiled, and the temperature in the room dropped another few degrees. I shivered, and her smile widened. “Strip her.”
Suddenly, I remembered the two men beside me. I flinched, but made no move to resist as the first man tore my shirt from neckline to wrist. A tear slipped out, and I tried to stop remembering my mother sewing it. It was tattered and mud stained by our long travel, practically rags. I can do without it, I told myself sternly. The other man tore my pants off, leaving just my breast binding. I panted, trying not to panic. The man to my left produced a small knife and slid the flat side against my skin, cutting through the bindings that held my breasts as flat as possible to my chest. The cloth fell away, my heavy breasts bouncing in the air. I stood nude before them, grimy from travel, despite my dunk in their river. I glanced at the man on my right and recognized my captor from the heat in his eyes. My nipples hardened under his gaze and I shrank back, afraid of what he would do.
“Jeffery?” Her voice was not sharp, it was almost deferential. &ld