Editor’s Notes: Ouuuufff. It’s up late again. I keep forgetting 😐 This is like the prelude to a really awesome chapter… if I do say so myself.
She hadn’t slept in a while, afraid that losing consciousness in the desert would see her buried alive under the relentless ocean of sand, and so, even the hard, uncomfortable mud brick bench carved out of the wall felt like a feathery bed. Ahliss would have slept for another day yet, if not for the warm water waking her from her slumber.
“You don’t look like much of a sleeping beauty.”
Her eyes wandered the building, iron bars prevented her exit, so little space between each bar even she could not slip through. A jail, she guessed, a small one at that. She doubted many of Dunefield’s villagers spent much time here.
“Your face isn’t much to look at, but,” he grinned, eyes rushing down her bodice, fingers flexing, “the Smiths have blessed you.”
Ahliss sprung to her feet, hands clasped around the two metal bars, teeth bared, nostrils flaring, looking more cursed than blessed.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The man nearly stumbled onto his ass but caught his balance just in time. Long purple hair knotted into a single braid swayed behind him as he tried to stand firm.
“You can call me master.” He leaned forward, arms folded, sneering as if to re-establish who held the authority.
He wasn’t dressed in the simple two piece clothes most of the villagers wore. He was dressed far more lavishly, layers of cloth, enough layers where it long surpassed the simple need of being clothed and became a genuine fashion. He even adorned himself with a variety of bejeweled belts and his assortment of clothes had so many pockets, a cowmel would have been unnecessary.
“Why am I here?”
He seemed to debate answering her, the pleasure of seeing her reaction outweighed that of enforcing his authority.
“Your friend, old man Faur, and his grandson, the pretty one, brought you here as this month’s toll. Usually Faur likes to do it himself, but I guess he’s making it a family legacy. The grandson brought you in himself. There’s a lesson for you there, the kindness of strangers is a myth.”
Whatever exaggerated laugh he produced didn’t rouse Ahliss the way he’d hoped. She simply sat back down onto the mud brick bench, folding her legs, even closing her eyes.
“What are you doing?” He closed in on the bars, taking a closer glance.
“For what, precisely?”
“Eventually you’ll have to open the door,” the word dripped with venom, “and I’ll chop your balls off when you do. Then I’ll head on over to the old man’s house, and I’ll break his pretty little boy’s face.”
The man’s laugh could probably be heard village wide. He was rolling on the floor at the very notion of it happening. Even being used to the mockery, she still found herself clenching her fist oh-so-tightly.
“Usually, whoever he brings along is too busy bartering for their lives to toss out threats. Maybe you’ll fetch us a nice price, my buyers, they like capable girls.” She doesn’t say anything back and that’s enough to bore him. He shrugs. “Now, if you can keep quiet like you are, maybe I’ll bring you something to eat from the inn?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, but he leaves a lasting grin engraved in her mind.
Once Ahliss is sure the slaver’s gone, she steps up to the iron bars, hands gripping it to see just how durable they are. Bending them would not be impossible, not for her. To wield her blade, she’d had to do away with certain limits. She gripped it even tighter, the green from her veins visible on her skin’s surface, feet digging into the burning sandy floor. She stopped. The drape covering the entrance moved. Faur Dune stepped through.
“You betrayed me, you old bastard!” A desperate arm reached through the bars, forgetting whatever strategy she had in mind for her great escape.
Faur’s got a big silly grin on his face, hands tucked into opposite sleeves.
“Let’s not be too hasty, little lady.”
“You and your fucking grandson, you – that tea! You put something in that tea and you sold me off!”
His grin fades, and he sighs.
“Little lady, I just need you to listen to me.”
“Nothing justifies what you’ve done.”
“I’m not saying my reasons are just or fair to you, Ahliss, I just want to tell you my story.”
The earth crackles at her feet, even the iron bars bends within itself under pressure, and then she exhales a heavy breath.
“I’ve nowhere else to go, you old bastard,” she lied. “Let us see if you can buy yourself your life.” He chuckles, Ahliss has shocked her, but even an archaic jail such as this should be too much for one person to break out of.
“The man whom you just saw is Brakir Farah, a slave trader from Bayt Lahm. He’s a Hero, you see, and he threatened us. At first he demanded a fee be paid to pay off our livelihood, but Dunefield isn’t close to the main road, we live off the land, and there isn’t much land to live off of. Thus he changed his toll, a villager each month. He would have us do his dirty work for him. Slavery drives Bayt Lahm, and traders thrive off of it. We didn’t accept it, not then. My son stood against him. We all stood against him. But as I said, Brakir is a Hero, he has an Arme, made by the Smiths, I swear it.” Ahliss stood closer to the bars. “I never believed in them, but it’s just as the myths are told. Yet, Arme or not, my son would have died either way fighting Brakir, he was like a little lady – sorry, a child fighting one of Bayt Lahm’s gladiators, but the Arme made it worse. Every scratch – and yet so few were scratches, some went deeper, gashes. But with each of them, his skin was…” he loses focus, reliving memories he had no intention of reliving, “dry, wrinkled, shrunken… lifeless. Like a flower left in the sunlight for days on end without water. I don’t know how he did it, it has to be one of those Smith damned weapons, there’s no other explanation.” The cane bore the full brunt of his weight. “He stole the life from him, he also stole the life from this village. Trist’s mother, she went to Bayt Lahm for help, but she never came back. I decided I would take it upon myself to keep Trist safe, to keep my people safe.” He was unable to explain what that entailed.
“So you paid the toll but not from your own village.”
He didn’t meet her eyes. “People like you, traveling alone, I led here, to Dunefield, and Brakir would accept it as the toll. I had no other choice. But you were different, you shouldn’t be able to wield that weapon, let alone carry it through the Great Desert, but you can. You weren’t boasting when you said it, you’re a Hero too. Seventy years I’ve been in this desert, and two Heroes in such a short span.” He faintly smiles but knowing it’s inappropriate, rids himself of it. “I was going to ask you for help but Trist thought-”
“You were going to sell me off. Like you did the others.”
He nods, “Aye, and I was, until I saw what you did on the way here. I can free you.” His sleeves part, with the key in hand. He sees the disgust in her eyes, and he thinks it over. “I did what I had to do to protect my people.”
“And now Trist’s trying to protect this village too, by selling off life like you sell your merchandise. You had a choice, hundreds of villagers facing one man, how many could he kill before one of you dug a knife into his heart?”
“My way ensured no one died. I’ve lost my son. My daughter! I would lose no one else.”
“Except innocent little ladies like me.”
“I’m ashamed of my decisions but I would not have it otherwise. You may be strong little lady, but our choices aren’t as simple as you’d like them to be. I will free you, and I will pray to the Smiths you do not abandon us.”
True to his word, Faur twisted the key into the cheap lock, and parted ways for her. Ahliss stepped out the small jail cell. They stood there. Faur looking at Ahliss, waiting. Ahliss looking ahead, past the door. Both wondering what would come next.
“I’m going to chop your friend’s balls off, because I promised him I would. But I’m not doing this for you, your village, or your grandson.” She didn’t even spare Faur a glance, only waited for a nod that quickly came. “Where’s my fucking sword?”
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