The labour camp was curiously quiet as dawn broke and for once Dannia could hear a blackbird singing to greet the new day.
The pack of cards were neatly arranged on the table ready for Caroline to pick up, all the suits back in order. After the other huts abortive attempt at escape they could do nothing more but use the cards to select who was to die and it didn’t sit well with any of them.
Hattie tried to insist she should be the one to be decimated.
“I’m the most logical.” She said. “I’m the oldest here and the most likely to condemn the hut when fatigue sets in.”
“We need your brain Hattie.” Beatrix protested. “As much as we need Juliet’s strength or Fran’s druidic abilities and so on.”
“And as just as much as we need your healing powers.” Hattie replied. “So don’t think of putting yourself forward either.”
Dannia had been quiet through out this exchange and had sat upon the desk shuffling the cards making sure they were well mixed.
“We’ll have to use the playing cards, that’s why Caroline left them here after all. It’s the only way to avoid tearing strips of each other.” She said.
The others reluctantly agreed and shuffled around the table, their faces etched with fear. Dannia had Hattie cut the pack and Beatrix to cut it once again, finally the youngest selected which of the four piles of cards to use.
Dannia dealt them out face down upon the scarred wooden surface her hands shaking.
“I’ll go first.” Said Hattie turning over her card, to reveal the ten of Baton’s. “Beatrix, you next.”
Beatrix had drawn a court card the King of Swords and with an audible sigh of relief signalled to Fran to turn over hers. There was a sharp intake of breath as it was revealed; it was the three of Swords.
Now it was Dannia’s turn. Dannia felt as if she couldn’t breathe her chest was so tight. The hand that stretched out to her card was surprisingly calm and steady considering every fibre of her body wanted to scream. In what appeared to be slow motion the hand turned the card over to reveal the lowest card in the pack, the Ace of Coins, and a stunned silence felt on the group like a thick blanket.
“Well that’s that then it’s me.” She said with a sniff. Dannia didn’t fear death, in her trade you couldn’t, but she feared the pain that went with it. She always thought she would die with a sword in her hand in some duel or other while doing some daring action not in some backwater hellhole for the pleasure of some insane racist. She looked up into the shocked faces of the others.
“It’s alright honestly. Now go to bed and try and get some sleep we don’t know what will happen in the morning and I need to prepare myself.”
Each woman came forward with tears in their eyes and kissed her on the cheeks before wandering to their bunks to get what ever rest they could all save Fran who burst into torrents of tears which resulted in them cuddling each other as best they could to give each other some crumb of comfort.
Beatrix led her away with a tearful nod to Dannia who sat still on the table top her legs crossed. Slowly she brought her breathing back under control, breathing slowly deeply from her abdomen as she stared at the candle flame flickering on its wick, emptying her mind of everything bar the flame. How long she sat like this she didn’t know but slowly she began to take stock. There was no way she could escape now thanks to the ill thought out attempt of the other huts, the guards were too awake and aware now. Just to prove she was correct booted feet echoed passed the huts door though thankfully they didn’t try it to see if was locked.
Escape tomorrow was just as difficult but not necessarily impossible if she wasn’t the first to be killed, she’d just have to be prepared to take what ever opportunity that arose. With commendable discipline she tightened and relaxed each muscle group in turn as she prepared to fight or to fly.
Everyone was in there usual places when Caroline entered that morning. Without a word she crossed over to the table picked up the cards and put them in her belt pouch.
She turned to the women.
“If you are ready ladies will you line up outside please.” She said quietly standing to one side to let them pass. As Bella passed her being the last out she flashed the cane giving her a sharp sting to her rump that soon faded away.
Once outside several things assailed Dannia’s eyes, firstly that the Commander was already in place on her podium with her devil dogs, secondly that a range of torture equipment filled the area along with a huge cooking pot full of boiling water standing over a fire that blazed underneath, thirdly that not all the attempted escapees had died last night after all. Three women from those huts hung upside down from wooden posts driven into the ground their naked bodies a mass of thin cuts that dripped blood into troughs beneath them. They were being bled to death like cattle in a casting frame and like them they sporadically twitched as their life blood was drained out of them drop by drop.
“Good Morning Ladies.” The commander called mockingly when everyone was assembled. “As you can see I have some toys for you to play with it’s just a pity that for you the cost of that play will be a life.” Many of the huts occupants were too frightened to cry instead stood around in mute terror. “I hope you have chosen your playmate wisely it would be a shame if the whole hut was to die for selecting the wrong one.” Her laugh was without any humour. “All those selected for decimation line up in front of me now.”
As Dannia went to move she was surprised to see Hattie moving forward in her stead. Whether the commander saw the by play between them or not she stopped Hattie in her tracks.
“Stop, you the so called lady mayor return to your hut members while you.” She pointed at Dannia. “You take her place.”
Dry mouthed Dannia walked forward to join the others. The others she noticed were nearly all the elderly populations of the huts, those that after a long life were willing to give up their lives for the younger members but several of the other women displayed wounds from cat fights that must have occurred when they where chosen to die.
Dannia looked up defiantly into the strangely familiar face as she joined the others.
“Sit down scum.” The commander yelled at them and without any ability to defy her they all sat. “Hut 1, collect your hut partner and tie her feet first to the loading crane.”
Crying and moaning the six other members came forward and pulled an old dignified woman to her feet.
She looked up at the commandant and spat at her.
“You are a monster and someday you will suffer a thousand fold for what you are doing to us.” The others dragged her away and tied her to the gallows like cranes crosstrees.
Under instructions they hauled her up until she dangled upside down beneath its main wooden spar.
“Swing her out over the boiling water.” The commander waited until the instructions had been obeyed. “When I tell you, you will lower her slowly into the boiling water; any attempt to end her pain by being swift will result in all of you sharing her fate.” She paused a moment to let that sink in. “Begin!”
Dannia looked around at the faces of the guards and the women from the huts and saw that they were all looking, some in horror, at the poor victim as she was lowered, even the archers in the towers seemed unable to take their eyes of the tableau in front of them.
“Slowly!” The Commander yelled at the grief stricken women who were having to lower the poor victim while their guard beat them for any reason at all. Dannia saw a chance, albeit a slim one, when the woman’s hands touched the boiling water she would scream as was only natural then was the time when she would act. Whilst they were distracted by the noise she would jump the Commander either killing her or better still holding her to ransom with a gem shard blade to her neck.
With luck the guards will be so wrong footed they will obey her orders and drop their weapons before realising that that leaves them defenceless from any revenge the traumatised women wished to meet out. The only stick point, the only fly in the ointment was the dammed devil dogs, there was simple no way to predict how they would react. Whatever happens Dannia was determined they wouldn’t take her alive and equally determined to take as many of them with her as she could.
The old woman began screaming as the hot steam blistered her skin which signalled to Dannia to prepare to remove her knives from her crutch bag.
“Halt!!!” A man’s deep bellow made everyone jump. They were so involved in the horrific scene before them that they hadn’t noticed the arrival of the General and his entourage. “What is the meaning of this Commander?!”
He rode up to the podium and confronted the woman seemingly totally oblivious of the cowering figures that had to move out of his way.
He was tall and straight backed with the rugged good looking features that most women fantasised their dream beau would have. His eyes were steely grey and his hair pale white blond with distinguished flecks of silver and white. Dannia had no doubt that she was looking at the new ruler of these mountain people, the true cause of all her sufferings.
“Lieutenant, get those women down and put out the fires. Well Commander I’m waiting for an explanation?!” Dannia couldn’t believe he was upbraiding the Commander in front of everyone.
“I am carrying out a decimation sir. A group of women tried to escape the night before last and I was making an example of these women to deter the others sir.” The commander lowered her head fractionally as she spoke to him as if trying to hide the ruin of her face.
“I see? You will have time enough for ‘examples’ later Commander at the moment they are needed for the war effort. No more slave units are to be damaged do I make myself clear but I expect a fifty percent increase in production over the next eight days and I don’t care how you get it even if they are worked 20 hours a day to achieve it.” He paused and looked deep it to the commandants eyes. “In two eight days the war with these degenerates will begin and once they have been quelled you can do what you dam well like with them but until then you keep them alive.”
The commander looked up at him with a cruel smile at the thought.
“Will you be dining here sir?” She asked.
“Tonight yes but at the moment I have other camps to visit. Carry on commander.” His voice was deep and manly but there seemed an edge to it almost a touch of insanity.
He turned his horse and espied Dannia sitting on the ground.
“You!” He said pointing at her. “Get up.”
Dannia got to her feet trying to avoid meeting his gaze for fear of revealing the murderous intent in her heart.
“Lieutenant is this the creature you spoke of?”
“Yes sir. Is she not a fine specimen?” Dannia’s lover tried to keep his voice and features unemotional but couldn’t help but frown worriedly a moment at the sight of her dishevelled gaunt form.
“Yes I suppose she is.” The General said feigning boredom. “I think Lieutenant General Luther could find her amusing enough. Are there any more?”
“No sir she is the only one but her hut does hold some fine specimens of all ages including a Half Orc that would occupy Bishop Hester for awhile.”
The general grunted and spoke as if she wasn’t even there.
“They are flabby fool’s boy even now they plot to overthrow me, I would remove them if they weren’t useful to me. But after the invasion is a totally different matter.” He pondered a moment. “We will speak more on it when I return this evening. Tell my sister, your aunt; of the arrangements then join me for the other camps inspection.”
“Yes sir.” He saluted as the man rode off and turned to the still listening Commander.
“It seems that your father still has use of you nephew I wish I could say the same.” She said.
“Yes Aunt Katrina it appears he does.” He replied with false politeness.
“Get this scum out of my sight and make sure they are fed and watered. Come boys.” With that she stalked away the devil dogs as usual at her heels.
“Angel, rejoin your hut mates please. I will see you tonight.” He turned haunted eyes on to her that sent a shiver down her spine as he asked her in a whisper. “Please?”
“Yes sir.” She was too shaken by events to smile but managed a nod of compliance. “On both counts.”
The Lieutenant smiled tautly before turning and stalking away to organise the removal of the torture equipment.
A crying Fran put an arm over her shoulder as she reached the hut and drew her inside.
She was starting to shake with shock as she sat dull eyed by the table.
“Fran leave the poor girl alone, if you want to be useful fetch some of the sleeping covers to wrap around her.” Beatrix ordered. “It’s alright Angel your safe now.”
“I’m never going to be safe, none of us are, as long as we are in here and she lives.” She whispered hoarsely.
“Did that lover boy of a Lieutenant protect you? Are you being paid with food to service him?” Michelle yelled with fraught intensity. “I heard you with him the other night; you were practically having sex with him. I suppose it was luck he turned up when he did. Is he arraigning your escape even now leaving us to die here?”
Dannia erupted from the chair on to the table top like some sort of feral cat after its prey as she catapulted across the space to thud feet first into the woman chest throwing her to the floor.
“You stupid fucking cow!” Dannia cried as she began to throttle Michelle her thumbs pressing deep on to the carotid artery. “They were going to kill me. Do you under stand, they were going to kill me. Not you, me!!!”
Suddenly her stomach convulsed and she rushed to the toilet barely making it before she threw up. Beatrix had swiftly followed and gently held her stomach and forehead while her little body convulsed and was reduced to a dry bile retch.
Dannia had face death several times in her young life but always on her own terms with the advantage always in her favour but never in something so cold in its cruelty with no way of fighting back.
“Michelle, Hattie asked Angel to flirt with the officer to get information and try and get extra rations!” Juliet roared in anger shaking the woman’s shoulders. “Don’t you understand she fixed the cards so she would get the lowest? How else could she have got the lowest card in the pack? She was sacrificing herself for us, for you! Now get out of my sight, I don’t care how you do it but get out of my sight!”
“Can you heal her Beatrix, you have to.” Fran asked fearfully.
“There are something’s I can not heal only time can do that. That and love.” Dannia stopped retching and stood up slowly her little body still shaking. “Easy Angel come on lets get you warm.” She went to take one of the covers from Fran but Dannia shook her head before stripping of her dress and pants and standing under the waterfall. Its cold water made her shake even more but she used it to wash away her fear and pain. She allowed herself to sob not even attempting to hold it in as the chill liquid carried them away as she held her face in its flow. Slowly she took control of her breathing bringing it back under control.
When she turned off the flow and turned round she found Michelle standing there holding out a towel.
“I’m so sorry Angel. I am so scared, that I lashed out at you I should have known you wouldn’t betray us.” The young woman was full of genuine remorse. “I think I did even when I was saying it. Please forgive me Angel.”
Dannia took the proffered towel and wiped her face.
“There is nothing to forgive, I’m scared too, very scared.” She paused and stared at the girl with her one exposed eye and added coldly. “But if you accuse me again I will kill you.”
To Dannia’s satisfaction the woman actually swallowed nervously and backed away. It was then that she spied Caroline standing in the shadow of the doorway and wondered how long she had been standing there.
“Hello Caroline anything we can do for you?” Hattie asked as she and Beatrix draped the bed clothes around Dannia’s body tucking them round her to keep her warm as possible as you would a little child after its bath.
The guard shook her head and moved another bead under her fingers before crossing to the table and laying a belt pouch on its surface.
She nodded at them as she put the beads away into the pocket of her tunic.
She turned and without a further word left the hut locking it behind her.
Dannia sat at the table wrapped up in the bedclothes as Hattie undid the draw string of the leather pouch Caroline had left behind and tipped out its contents. Soon eight cooked pieces of meat lay on the table’s surface glistening. They weren’t large but they seemed like heaven to the starving women. Each one of them hesitantly took a piece and slowly chewed it savouring the taste and texture in total silence.
“We have two eight days six at the most before we will be killed by the Commander.” Dannia told them as she sucked the meat juice off her fingers.
“What?!” Hattie exclaimed as she poked at a piece of meat stuck between her teeth.
“I heard the General telling the Commander that they intend to invade our homeland in two eight days time and even allowing for what feeble resistance the cities can offer it will probably be over in six eight days. After that time we won’t be needed and will be left to the Commander to dispose of.” Dannia explained all that she had heard but kept the General and Lieutenants comments about her and Juliet to herself for the moment.
Michelle sat with her head lowered staring at the floor throughout the conversation in what Dannia hoped was shame.
“Can’t we dig our way out?” She said eventually. “We’re pretty close to the picket fence.”
“No it wouldn’t work we’re to far from safety and besides which we’ve nothing to dig with or shore it up with. We’ve discuss this all before!” Juliet said testily.
“Just a moment Juliet she may just have a point about digging.” Hattie pursed her lips in thought.
“If they are going to work us twenty hours a day we won’t have the energy to dig anyway.” Bella scoffed.
“We don’t have to dig all the way just enough to hide us.” Hattie got to her feet and paced up the hut toward the waterfall area and then back again. “We don’t have to escape we just have to appear as if we have. Fran is there anyway you can make holes in the earth beneath the hut large enough for all of us to hide in or even separately for that matter.”
“The hut is raised up so there will be a gap beneath it anyway.” Fran said puzzled as she concentrated her senses on the ground beneath the hut. “I can create a screen of plants around the edge if that’s a help.”
“Yes it will but as you’ve explained there is a gap beneath us which is the reason it sounds so hollow when we walk.” Hattie explained.
“You’d have to go deep enough for it to sound hollow again.” Beatrix said thoughtfully. “But I still don’t understand why you want it to appear that we have escaped?”
Dannia looked up and with a tired voice gave her the answer.
“Once they discover we have supposedly escaped there will be a great hue and cry. They will lock everyone up and take the guards to fan out in a circle with the camp in its centre to find us but as the circle expands it will become thinner as the gaps between the searchers get larger.”
“And how will that help us under the hut?” Beatrix hadn’t realised the implication of what she had heard.
“After a few hours we will emerge and escape and make our way to the river where we will commandeer a boat and sail down the river and away onto the inlet sea. Hopefully we will be able to slip between the searchers unseen.” Hattie explained.
“It could work but I suggest we time it for next eight day when they bring our evening meal that way we can make use of the darkness to slip away between them.” Dannia added. “If we do it before then they will not realise our escape until Caroline calls for us in the morning. If they believe we have escaped the night before they may not start a search and even if they did it would be difficult to escape and slip through them to the river.”
“Very well then we make our escape this coming eight day.” Hattie said resting her hand on Dannia’s shoulder.
“It’s a bit irrelevant really as we’ve got no where to put the earth I’ll excavate. Don’t look at me like that Hattie I can’t just make it vanish you know.” Fran said irritably.
“Sorry Fran I was hoping you could.” Hattie looked a little crestfallen but then squared up her shoulders as if moving a heavy weight on them. “Any suggestions, any one?”
“We could put some of it in the roof space but we would have to make sure it could take the strain and didn’t leak dust onto the floor.” Beatrix said looking up at the ceiling. “But how will we get it up there we had only our wash bowls to move it with, and that’ll take for ever.”
And so the discussion began for the rest of the morning with ideas coming and going each more outlandish than the one before. Dannia left them to it and retreated to her bunk were she sat staring out of the window.
“Are you?” Juliet asked quietly as she joined her at the window.
“Seeing him, yes tonight.” Dannia replied with out turning round. “I climb up into the roof space and crawl to the end where there is a lose board, it’s in the blind spot between the two watchtowers were the torch light doesn’t reach. I climb down and meet him there.”
“Be careful Little Angel you’re so innocent in the way of men.” Juliet ran the back of her hand gently down her cheek and caught a single tear.
“I am going to die in here Juliet that I know, I’ve seen it so often in my dreams, but the rest of you escape.” Dannia sighed. “I’ll see if I can find out any more information about the attack tonight, he hates his father so may be more willing to talk with the right persuasion.”
Juliet nodded but added.
“You will not die here Angel let there be an end to it, none of us here will allow it.”
The heat was getting oppressive as the hours moved toward noon and every woman had taken to their beds in an attempt to get some sleep. But they only rested fitfully as the heat increased. That evening Caroline came and knocked on the door before unlocking and entering. She was with a short squat woman from the kitchen who carried in a hot jug of the gruel. She placed it on the table and swiftly exited the room leaving Caroline to linger a moment. She crossed over to the table and picked up the pouch she had left earlier leaving another in its place. She paused and nodded to the women before following the other woman out and locking them in once more.
Hattie opened the pouch to reveal a small selection of grapes and an orange. Again it wasn’t much but was a welcome addition to the evening meal. Dannia savoured every piece she received enjoying their cool sweetness as if she had never tasted them before.
“It seems our politeness with Caroline is working as is your dalliance with the lieutenant Angel.” Hattie remarked as she licked the orange juice from her fingers. “If you see him tomorrow Angel use what nearly happened to you today to get some sympathy and use that to get some general information. Bella see if you can get any more information about the boats on the river from that overseer. Fran carry on practicing your control of the insects but don’t let them attack anyone at least not yet. Juliet see if you can make something we can dig with at the forge. Beatrix try and use your skills with Fran to gently affect the weather ready for eight day.” Hattie issued her orders with great tact and skill. “We will take shifts doing the digging with Juliet, Bella and me being the main diggers. Now try and get some sleep from now on that is going to be in short supply.”
It took quite awhile to stop Fran fussing over Dannia and get her to settle down but eventually exhaustion took over and she like the others fell asleep, all except Dannia and Juliet of course.
“Are you going to see him now?” Juliet asked worriedly.
“Yes.” Dannia replied with a worried frown.
“Be careful Angel, don’t risk yourself more than you have to.”
“I will Juliet. Goodnight Juliet my dear friend.” Dannia climbed up on to her bunk and with Juliet still watching silently slid back the ceiling panel and climbed inside.
As she slid the panel back she heard Juliet utter a prayer to some unknown God for her safe return, and then she was gone.