The traveling army Zarek sent to the palace of the Select at Shimeron was not large by military standards, numbering only in the few thousands of men. But a small and highly trained group of soldiers could accomplish a great deal in a short time.
Hamm, the commander, rode in advance of the others. His black leathers and armor, complete with holes and dirt, melded into the color of his mount. A large man, his shaved head sported various scars. A particularly gruesome one ran from below his ear to his neck. His narrow black eyes glittered in the late summer sun.
With his principal men to his right and left, he held out his arm, patterned with tattoos of skulls and snakes, signaling a halt. The clanking of armor and squeaking of leather filled the air along with the smells of dirt, sweat, and horse.
From her place inside a wagon with the other slave women, all tied with strips of heavy leather to the wagon's frame, more fetters about their ankles, Erin looked up at the palace.
In stark contrast to her surroundings and state of hunger, bondage, and despair, its exterior glistened in the sun. Banners flew from its turrets high in the air. A beehive of activity covered the grounds: a carriage pulled up to the door, servants labored in the gardens, house staff cleaned the front entrance, and gardeners clipped topiary on the front steps.
Guards stood at the palace entrance and strategically about the grounds, clearly aware of Hamm and his men.
She reflected on her journey. Had she known what would happen, would she have assisted Nina to escape from Zarek's hold? Would she have cried out, revealing her sister's presence in the merchant's wagon that afternoon? If she'd not later confessed, would her masters have relegated her to the position in which she now found herself? In the end, it mattered not. She was grateful Nina had escaped and hoped she'd found freedom.
How wrong she'd been to deride her sister all those months ago. She could not have imagined then the horrors of living day in and day out, servicing Zarek's men. Now, she understood.
Erin realized that she'd lived her entire life from a place of weakness. Her parents must have known they burdened their daughters with shackles. Perhaps they believed their own lives were more important than their daughters' lives and freedom. Or perhaps they believed their actions were the only ones open to them. Now, though the actors differed and the stage props had been altered, Erin remained a slave. But she vowed, one day, she would live free.
She watched and listened as several of the men discussed how and when they would approach the palace where Lilith awaited them.
"Isn't he dreamy?" a nearby voice whispered.
Erin looked up at Genny, another slave. Soldiers had captured her near the boundary of Chiran and Oosa a few years back. Her shabby brown hair was matted and filthy, and her crooked teeth yellow were decaying.
Erin couldn't help but notice that, as compared to the generally accepted standards of beauty, Genny's nose was too hooked, her lips were too thin, and her eyes were too gray—and slightly crossed. Still, of all the slaves, she alone went unfettered because she never caused a problem. She looked at her position as one of opportunity.
In the quiet hours of the late nights, when the other women cried away their sufferings, Genny boasted of how she would find a soldier who would fall in love with her and take her from this life. She was the only one who didn't show her disdain at the men's forced advances, the only one who tried to engage them in conversation, the only one who laughed at their filthy language, the only one who welcomed their attentions. The idea sickened Erin. Still, Genny had made it possible . . .
"Don't you think?"
Erin followed the woman's gaze. It rested on Hamm. A shiver ran down her spine. Hamm was the most violent of Zarek's men. He delighted in the horrors he bestowed upon the women, the degradation they suffered, and the abuses they endured at his hand.
"I thought you were only cross eyed," Erin said, "now I see that in truth, you are blind."
Genny scowled. "It's because you say things like that that you remain in restraints."
"No, Genny, it's because of filth like that," Erin gestured toward Hamm, "that I am in restraints."
"Well I think he's dreamy."
Erin sighed. "Don't you ever want to be free of all of this?"
"It's not so bad."
"I suppose Hamm will be the soldier who falls madly in love with you and frees you from this life?"
"More like, 'maybe not.' Really . . ." Erin stopped to scold herself for her unkindness. She should be grateful. If Genny hadn't found the tool for her, if she hadn't risked her own safety to help . . .
Erin closed her eyes to stop herself from crying. It didn't seem to matter how many times she told herself there'd been no choice but to abort her child. If they'd known, they would have killed her. The child put her life at risk. Still, she felt guilt—guilt that she'd taken its life to save her own.
What if she'd waited? What if something had intervened?
A new thought shocked her to her core. Were her actions so different from those her parents had taken? At least when she left their home, she was alive and breathing. Guilt drenched her anew.
Erin spent many days bleeding afterwards, shivering and feverish. It was then she knew, somehow in her spirit, that in the moment she took the life of her child, she had damaged herself beyond repair. In that moment in which she committed infanticide, she also committed a sort of matricide. It was not an act against her own mother, but rather, one against the potential mother that previously had lived within her. She knew she would never carry another.
The men made camp for the night. They scattered out in the field, destroying the crop in the process. They raised tents, started fires, fixed meals, and tended to their horses. Tattered and dirty, loud and gruff, they might have spent the evening improving their looks for the next morning. Instead, except for Hamm and his immediate assistants, they drank heavily and brawled as loudly.
As night wore on, the women kept silent, so as to draw no attention to themselves. Eventually the men retired. One by one, the women started breathing freely again, and one by one, they fell asleep. Only Erin remained awake.
She removed from the place where she kept it hidden, the tool Genny had given her. Just looking at it sickened her. With the sounds of sleep all about, she set out to break the leather bands that enslaved her.
***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***
Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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