The chains clinked and rattled their metallic dirge in the dusk as Rhysa shuffled behind the wagon. Steel manacles at wrists and ankles prevented much movement, and a similar circle of steel around her neck kept her in line with the rest. And they were heavy—so heavy. At the end of each day, she and the other captives were too exhausted to do much besides lie down in line and sleep. Rhysa didn’t know where they were going, or how long it would take to get there, but she dreaded their arrival even as she prayed the sun-up to sun-down march through this forest would stop.
A whistle shrilled, piercing the haze of Rhysa’s exhaustion. It was time to set up camp. The wagons edged off the road, wheels creaking at the shift from smooth dirt road to rough forest carpeting. When the wagon she was chained to stopped, she sat down hard, the world graying out, so bone deep was her exhaustion. Noises drifted from the center of the circled wagons. Rhysa was too tired to be hungry, much less associate what she heard with the preparation of food; nevertheless, she ate what they gave her—she still had bruises from the first time she had refused to eat.
The gruel was thin and watery, but thankfully warm in these cooling nights. Rhysa slurped her half-bowl of the stuff, the virtue of its heat spread through her. Putting the now empty bowl aside, she fought the urge to lie down immediately and sleep—there was yet one more thing to do. Sure enough, Jagun’s legs came into view, and from her seated position, she looked up at him.
Jagun’s harsh face betrayed no thought or emotion. He reached down and hauled her to her feet. He unlocked her bonds, and led her into the forest outside the camp. Rhysa would have been mortified, if she had had one more ounce of energy. As it was, she merely squatted and leaned against a tree to eliminate under the stone-like regard of Jagun.
After finishing, she stood and held out her hands. Jagun unslung a waterskin, and after removing the stopper, poured the washwater over her hands. The antiseptic liquid burned as it washed away the dead, top layer of tissue along with any substance that might cause infection. Jagun poured half the skin over her wrists and hands before re-stoppering the skin and slinging it over his shoulder. He gestured for Rhysa to precede him back to the wagons—where he would restore the bindings before he moved to the next captive.
The ground was hard and cooling in the evening air. There were no roots this time. Rhysa clawed out and tossed the only rocks of significant size, so her bed was relatively comfortable tonight. She lay down, pillowed her head on her arms, closed her eyes, and willingly lost herself in dreams.
The chamber was large and well lit. The hard walls of carved stone were softened with tapestries, paintings, and an occasional statue or sculpture. In the center of the roughly circular chamber was a pool of water. It was a perfect circle six feet across and only a few inches deep. Rhysa lay by the edge, dabbling her fingers in the crystal water. The ripples entranced, and the patterns made when one set of ripples collided with a reflected set mesmerized. A soft splash of a small waterfall in the next room, and the deep throaty laughter echoing from further away, comforted. Rhysa smiled her contentment.
Later, Rhysa stood across the pool from her teacher. She couldn’t quite see his features, nor could she make out what he was saying. Rhysa felt and saw herself do something in response to something the teacher had said, but couldn’t quite make out what it was. Rhysa’s teacher said something else, and she heard the voice was deep and had a thrumming quality to it.
Abruptly, Rhysa found herself running through carved rock tunnels. Her heart raced against her feet. Even as she ran for her life, the sounds of titanic struggle behind echoed through the tunnels. She ran blindly, trusting her feet to know the way out. The rock under her feet trembled, and her ears cringed at the roar of some creature or monster turning his pain into anger to be unleashed on those intent on killing him. Dodging falling rocks dislodged from the ceiling, she caromed around a corner. Even as she spotted the exit, the earth shook as if some gargantuan object had crashed to the floor as dead weight. The impact and reverberation sent ripples throughout the dwelling, and even as she reached the exit, the ceiling came down and all was darkness.
Rhysa sat up panting, the sudden movement causing her chains to give a necromantic rattle. A pale lock of hair fell in front of her eyes. Her hand shook as she cleared her vision. In the dark, the glowing embers of the cook fire glared angrily. A small movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Rhysa turned her head slightly; it was one of the guards walking his circuit. She heard the heavy breathing of the other captives, and beyond that—nothing. The camp was calm, quiet—normal, but for the constant air of quiet despair that lay over the chained captives. Her agitation calmed and the day’s exhaustion overcame her once more. Mercifully she did not dream this time.
The next day, it began to rain midmorning. A steady shower came from a weeping sky and turned the road to mud. The wagon beasts strained to keep the wagons from getting stuck. The captives slogged their way to a new definition of exhaustion. Rhysa’s world contracted to step after muscle-burning step. Head bowed, she stared at the heels of the feet in front. When the wagons circled for the midday meal, even the guards looked tired.
As with every midday stop, the captives were taken away from the caravan for their necessary ablutions before they were fed. The rain-soaked ground sucked at Rhysa’s feet as she trailed Jagun away from the caravan. Jagun, with his cold, iron professionalism, led her into trees. Once shielded from the caravan by foliage, she found a place and relieved herself under Jagun’s dispassionate gaze. In some ways, Rhysa was glad he was there. There had been trouble that first night.
Rhysa had never walked so long without rest before. Both legs burned, and yet felt like water. The manacles they’d placed around wrists and ankles were heavy, dragging her downward even as she put one foot in front of the other. The steel collar around her neck bowed her head. Caught up with the effort of placing one foot in front of the other, Rhysa didn’t notice when the line moved off the road, nor when it stopped. She walked into the back of the captive in front, a woman who glanced back with eyes dead of exhaustion.
Rhysa sat, legs crossed, head hanging; looking at food made her queasy. When the guards put a bowl of gruel in front of her, she shook her head. The guard scowled and again offered the bowl.
“I don’t want it,” she said. Stars danced in front of her eyes, and she realized the guard had backhanded her.
“No talking,” growled the guard. “You will eat this, or we will force it down your gullet.”
Rhysa shook her head and clamped her mouth shut. The guard’s smile held a slight hint of satisfaction. He stepped back and nodded. A second guard grabbed her in a bear hug, pinning her arms, and a third guard wrapped a rope around her torso. When he finished his handiwork, he pulled the rope tight allowing the second guard to step away. Then the third guard jerked the bindings so tight, the ropes bit into her skin through her clothes. Rhysa whimpered. The guard in front put a foot on her chest and toppled her backwards. He stood there, fire in his eyes, while the other two secured her legs.
“Now.” The guard’s breath quickened. “Are you going to open up and let us feed you? Or do we get to force that, too?”
Eyes blinded with tears, Rhysa opened her mouth.
“Good girl,” purred the guard. Slowly, carefully, he put the bowl of gruel to her lips and poured the thin, runny porridge into her mouth. When he finished, he got up to take the empty bowl away.
While he was gone, Rhysa managed to get into a sitting position. Most of the captives avoided her eyes. One captive, though, looked at her from up the chain with an expression that said he’d seen it before, and that it was her fault for pushing the guards so far.
When she looked away from him, she saw the captives were being escorted one at a time into the woods by one or two guards. Each guard had a water skin slung over his shoulder. The man who came to escort the woman in front of her was large. He was tall with shoulders an axe handle across, his movements were brisk, clipped—eminently professional. His eyes, though, were almost inhumanly cold—detached and calculating; they registered everything. Rhysa shivered and was glad someone else would escort her—until she saw it was to be the three who “fed” her. The one who appeared to be their leader smiled.
“Let’s go.” He hauled her roughly to her feet. The second guard unlocked her manacles and collar. The third watched silently with a hungry glint in his eye that terrified her. As they walked into the trees, Rhysa realized she had three “attendants” instead of one or two.
The first guard seemed to read her mind. “Your performance at dinner shows you’re a runaway risk, so you get three of us.” His smile made Rhysa feel oily inside. His expression shifted to mock regret. “Too bad you haven’t actually tried to run, yet. We didn’t get to invite our friend along. But I’m sure we can make do.” The chuckles of the other two turned her legs to jelly.
They were deep amongst the trees when the first guard stopped and turned. He reached out a gnarled hand, and ran it down her face, her jaw, her neck. His callused touch was rough as his hand moved across her skin. He reached into the rent where Rhysa’s blouse had torn during her capture. His rough hand found and ungently squeezed a breast. He licked his lips as if to stop himself from drooling, then pulled his hand out and stepped back a pace. “Put her down.”
A heavy hand landed on each shoulder. The backs of both knees were kicked, and she crashed to her knees before the leader, vibrating with terror. Once again he put his foot between her breasts and pushed her violently onto her back, her legs spread. He planted his feet to keep her legs spread wide. The other two knelt by her head and pushed her shoulders to the ground.
Their leader undid his pants and let them fall; he took down his undergarment. When he stood, his phallus quivered with anticipation. He bent down and unsheathed his knife, then knelt between Rhysa’s wide-open legs. The icy touch of his knife cutting away her undergarment released her vocal paralysis. One of the guards clamped a hand over her mouth, stifling her scream.
The three froze and listened for several seconds before the leader exhaled and unwrapped Rhysa’s groin like a gift. When he was done, he set the knife aside. With each hand, he grabbed a breast, rhythmically squeezing them as if squeezing water from a sponge. Rhysa whimpered with the terror and the pain. He smiled and stopped his squeezing. Placing a hand on each side of her, he leaned his weight on his arms. He shifted his hips, seeking her with his phallus. False encouragement dripped from his mouth like rancid grease as she struggled and moved her hips to buck him off.
The head of his phallus nudge between her lips and she froze. Their eyes locked; she felt her eyes widen as she saw and felt him prepare his first thrust.
She never knew exactly how it happened. The guard was just about to thrust when he was pulled off and flung into a tree some ten feet distant. The large man with inhumanly cold eyes held the other two guards by their throats. He spoke low and quick, the deadly menace no longer held in check. When he finished speaking, he flung them down and they crawled away, gasping for air. The man stalked to where the leader was climbing to his feet, eyes black with concussion. This time she heard the conversation.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“What does it look like?” The guard gestured at her. “Look at her, man! Have you ever seen such a tasty piece of flesh?”
The large man glanced at her. For an instant, a furnace of hunger burned in his eyes before the ice-cold wall of discipline slammed into place. He turned back to the man.
“Your job is to see the captives are safe and don’t escape. Not to abuse or break them for your own pleasure.”
“But look at—“
“No!” the large man roared. “You will take yourself back to camp and wait until I return.”
“Now.” The last word was soft, a finely honed dagger cutting through silk.
Startled, the other backed away, then turned and ran.
Rhysa’s rescuer watched the other disappear towards camp. Then he made his way to stand beside her as she lay prostrate on the ground in shock. He looked down at her with cold, calculating eyes. Then he sighed and offered his hand. She took it and he pulled her to her feet. Rhysa did not like this large predator. He terrified her. She also knew she was safe with him. She had seen his iron discipline, and knew it would hold until he chose to release it. As long as it was part of his job to keep her and the others safe, he would do it—no matter what burned beneath.
“My name is Jagun,” he said. “This is your first day with us. Let me tell you the rules and routines. Normally you are not allowed to speak. For this little time, you may ask questions. Let us start with the rules. First….”
Ever since that night, whenever Rhysa had to be escorted alone, Jagun went with her. Of the three would-be rapists, two were stripped of rank and weapons and set to wagon duties. Their leader was stripped and left standing by the road in his undergarment and an eating knife. A single glanced sufficed to see the anger and hate in his posture. Before Rhysa could look away, their eyes met, and she shrank back at the promise of violent retribution in his expression. Then the signal had come to move and she’d gratefully turned her attention to the chained captives in front of her.
Returning her mind to the present, Rhysa finished and stood. Jagun poured the alkaline washwater over her extended hands. A brief hitch in his movements caused her to look up. For a bare instant, pity mixed with regret looked at her. Then his clinical discipline returned, and she might as well have been looking into frost-covered sapphires. He grunted something that sounded like, “Come on,” and led the way back to the caravan and her chains.
After the captives had been fed and watered and taken into the trees, the caravan started on its way again. In the early afternoon, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and things got truly unpleasant. It would take a long time for the road to dry out, so they still slogged through a quagmire. The sun evaporated some of the standing water, and the air became thick with humidity. With the passing of the rain, the wind disappeared and the air became dead still. By the time the caravan stopped for the evening, everyone was drenched with sweat. Torpid movements testified to the enervating effects of the weather. Rhysa’s clothes were sopping and her hair was matted.
When the meal and evening ablutions were finished, an odd grinding, clinking sound seemed to come from the wagon she was attached to; or rather, the column of captives. Looking to the front of the column, the foremost captives stepped forward and the line curved away from the wagon.
As her column snaked around the edge of the camp, she saw there were eight other wagons, each with a chained column of thirty captives. Her column, last in line, was the dirtiest and shabbiest. She thought the columns were being rotated and her column was being taken to the front. When they passed the lead captive wagon, though, she began to wonder once more. As her column completed a half circuit, the guards led them directly away from camp. She tried to listen for any clue to where they were going, but between the snapping twigs beneath tired, shuffling feet and the rattle of chains, she might as well have been deaf.
Without warning they stepped into a clearing or glade. The open space was roughly oval, and running down the length of it was a stream. A little downstream from the center of the glade the stream widened into a large pool. Rhysa’s heart lifted as the guards began to hand out towels: she was about to get clean for the first time in more than five days. In the excitement, she barely heard Jagun walking up and down the column reminding everyone of the “no talking” rule and pointing out the guards around the perimeter of the clearing.
As each captive’s chains were unlocked he or she walked quickly to the pool, their movements almost joyful. At the edge of the pool the captives stripped to their skin, eagerness overcoming modesty. When her turn came, Rhysa very nearly floated to the pool. She couldn’t wait to get out of my clothes and jump into the pool. The cold water closed in around her; she felt herself relax for the first time in many days.
She floated, luxuriating in the feel of the crisp water. The bottom was sandy, rather than rocky or muddy, and she exclaimed with joy when she discovered it. She made her way to a shallow spot, scooped a handful of sand, and rubbed it on herself, exulting in the feel of her caked-dirt prison falling away. Wherever she rubbed the sand, she felt a small tingle reminiscent of the ablution washwater, and guessed sand such as this was part of the process for creating washwater. Too bad there was nothing similar for hair here. Rhysa decided to just let her hair soak, and she would comb her fingers through it. Hopefully it would get the worst of the dirt, sweat, and oil off.
The shrill blast of a whistle startled her back to reality; she stood and looked around. Jagun motioned for them to leave the pool. Rhysa climbed out reluctantly, grabbed a towel, and froze when she couldn’t find her clothes. A quick glance showed the others looking around and beginning to show panic. Her own heartbeat quickened when she saw a guard collecting the towels. She sighed and took off the towel she’d wrapped around her body. Apparently they were going to be marched around nude.
For the first time, she noticed people kept glancing at her. The glances of nearly all the men, guards included, contained a hunger and desire that made her nervous. One or two of the women looked at her that way, too, but the glances of most of the women were at the men watching Rhysa, hoping she would absorb all their attention. All except one woman of middle age who didn’t glance but looked long and hard, and in the woman’s eyes Rhysa saw pity, as if the woman were seeing some tragic future.
Rhysa looked down at herself out of reflex—as if she could see what the woman saw. All she saw was her own nude body. She sighed and corralled her mind to think about clothing once more. They’d taken a risk, letting all of them off chain to bathe. Maybe this meant whoever was in charge cared about how the captives looked. They wouldn’t want newly cleaned bodies put back into very dirty clothes; Rhysa assumed they would be given new clothes.
As if her thoughts had summoned him, a guard trotted into the clearing carrying a basket. Together he and Jagun walked to each captive and handed him or her neatly folded cloth bundles. When they reached Rhysa, the other guard’s eyes lit with desire, but he maintained control of himself as he handed her the folded cloth. The two guards moved on with nothing more serious happening than continuing long looks.
The cloth turned out to be a long tunic; she put it on. The hem fell to her knees. No belt, though, so it fitted like a tent. Judging from the looks she’d received, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Nobody received undergarments. Now clean and wearing a clean tunic, she put her sandals on and went placidly, if reluctantly, back to stand in line to be chained once more.
The manacles and collar snapped around Rhysa once more, all the joy she’d had at being clean and having a chance to swim disappeared as if a window had slammed between. She remembered the joy, but couldn’t feel it—only see it as if through glass. Nevertheless, the column as a whole walked with a spring in their step that had been missing since they’d been caught. They held their heads up. Some even smiled, but most settled for not looking grim. Morale had improved, and it showed. Grins broke out among the captives in the other columns as they realized the treat they were about to receive.
That night Rhysa dreamed again of roaring and falling rock and fire and blood. The next day they entered the city.