Whatever it Takes
They passed through many poor villages along the way.
The merchants were careful not to sell healthy young slaves like Natir at first, but when they reached the larger villages of the Boii tribe, the merchant who owned Natir began calling her out to the markets.
Natir asked if this meant that these people were richer than the ones before.
“They are not,” the man next to her said.
Uninvited, he joined the conversation she had been having with someone else, but he still sounded bored, his eyes were shut and his cheek glued to his fist.
He continued, “Can’t you see for yourself what the size of their village is? What it looks like? They are just as poor as the others.”
“Then why is he suddenly calling all of us out?”
The woman she was talking to earlier, a playful, laid-back brunette near her forties, followed up the man’s comment.
“Natir, my dear, he didn’t make many sales so far, so he’s worried that he might end up with too many of us to handle. As winter creeps nearer, food will get pricier, so now he’s willing to accept the minimum price for us to make sure we don’t become his burden.”
“If someone in these rotten villages can afford your price, then why not? It’s one less mouth for him to feed.”
Natir swallowed against the hard knot that had formed in her throat. She noticed that Aina was about to pull the beard of a sleeping man who had played with her before.
“Aina, don’t!” She pulled her daughter back into her lap. “Not now, let him sleep. He’ll play with you later.”
“Uncle Beardy will play?”
“Yes, Uncle Beardy will play with you, but only if you let him sleep now. All right, dear?”
Aina nodded and threw her little arms around her mother’s neck.
Natir turned back to the other two slaves. “What if no one can afford us?”
“Wouldn’t that be great for you if it really happened,” the woman teased with a wink.
Natir cocked her head, confused.
The woman explained, “If no one pays the price he wants for you, then he’ll try to lower it and sell you cheap. That’s really bad. You might end up with someone who can’t afford to feed you. But if he still can’t find a buyer for you and he’s left with too many of us, then you’ll be in luck: he will have no other choice but to keep going south to where the richer towns are. It will be a long journey, but once we make it there, then you’ll be sold to someone who can put bread in your child’s mouth for sure, and the two of you will live your lives in a much warmer place than these frozen forests.”
“Don’t put such unrealistic hopes in her head,” the man warned. He opened his eyes at last and nodded at Natir. “How old are you?”
He reached out his hand and pushed her brown hair aside, exposing her pretty face.
“With a face like this, you’ll be sold for sure once he lowers your price,” he said. “Do you know what happens to those who are sold places like this?”
Natir shook her head.
“Half of them won’t make it through winter, and the other half will be sold again next year. But don’t worry, you’ll be among the latter half… Sure, they’ll toy you around a bit over winter and you’ll cry a few tears, but then they’ll have to sell you again by spring to get some of their money back. You’re still young. Let it happen a few times and eventually you’ll end up with someone capable.” He nodded at her. “You will make it south. But not in this wagon, and not this year.”
“Unless she’s sold to a pleasure-house,” the woman said, laughing.
“Yes.” He chuckled. “Unless it’s a pleasure-house.” He wiped his face and added, “I hope not to still be here if that happens. I’m not in the mood for all the tears and whining. It will only upset my stomach.”
“What do you mean?” Natir asked.
“What do I mean?” he intoned.
Natir had the irritating feeling she was being treated like a child.
She frowned at him. “Well, I’m not going to cry about it. It’s not going to be any worse or different from what I’ve been through.”
The man looked strangely at her. After a moment of eye contact, he dropped his humorous tone and asked, “How many times have you been sold before?”
“Once. Nine years ago.”
“She doesn’t know,” the woman said.
“No. No, I guess she doesn’t.”
“What?” Natir asked.
The man looked away, so Natir turned to the woman for an explanation.
“They like pretty faces,” the woman said, “but they don’t like children.”
Natir turned her face between Aina and the woman. “You mean…”
The woman shrugged. “They got plenty of those.”
Natir held Aina tight to her chest and kissed her head. She was frightened but she refused to show fear in front of her child.
“Give her to me,” the woman suddenly requested.
Natir swiftly turned towards her, her eyes wide with panic.
The woman resumed more softly, “I never got to keep any of my children, and I don’t know if the gods will gift me with more. So, if the worst happens and the two of you are going to be separated, then give her to me. If the gods are kind and allow me to keep her, then rest assured I’ll look after her as if she were my own.”
Natir couldn’t believe her ears nor find the words to respond with. She couldn’t even tell the good from the evil in the woman’s offer.
The woman burst out a laugh at her reaction.
“My gods! Relax. Don’t cry on me just yet. I did say if you two get separated, didn’t I?”
Natir dropped her face. “Please don’t speak of such things.”
When the woman stopped laughing, she advised Natir more seriously, “Use your tears.”
She waited for Natir to meet her eyes.
“I’ve seen it work before. If it comes down to it, use your tears. Get down on your knees and beg and cry and scream and humiliate yourself like you never did before until they let you keep her… She’s worth it.” She winked.
The woman then turned her face forward and reaffirmed, “But if that doesn’t work, and I am still around, then know that my offer stands.”
There were just too many possibilities for Natir to take in all at once, most of them pretty dark.
She clung to Aina and shut her eyes, praying in her heart not to be sold until they reached the promised south.
* * *
Natir was called out to the market again.
From first glance, she didn’t like this village—not one bit. A ring of stone nine feet high surrounding its perimeter told her that safety wasn’t this place’s virtue. Its people looked rough. Their accent was different from hers and their houses looked poor. The village was in the middle of a dense forest with practically no fields. It made Natir wonder what this small clan of Boii, the Toic, had to live on in such a place.
She stood in line with the rest of the slaves.
The buyers were not serious. They were killing time, toying with her and the other women.
Natir wore a one-piece woolen dress that covered her from the shoulders to just over her knees. She had Aina in her arms, making it harder for the onlookers to flip her clothes at whim.
Her eyes fell on a man examining one of the female slaves. She could easily tell that he wasn’t like the rest. This one was a serious buyer.
She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he drew closer. When he noticed her, she quickly looked forward.
The man skipped the rest and approached Natir directly with eyes telling of sincere interest.
It frightened her.
He was well into his fifties, bellied and scarred with a long red beard. He wore leather clothes and his expression was very vicious. It wasn’t someone whom Natir would even consider stopping to ask for directions.
He asked, “What’s your name, woman?”
He nodded at Aina. “Yours?”
“How old is she?”
He spun around Natir, inspecting her with his eyes. “And you?”
Natir flinched away from him when he reached out to touch her face. She quickly realized her mistake and forced herself to be still, letting him turn her head as he pleased.
“Put the girl down. Remove your clothes.”
This hadn’t happened to her before, not in public. Natir had thought she was prepared for it. She told herself that it was nothing compared to the things she’d already been through a thousand times over, behind closed doors. But, now that it was really happening, she just froze.
She felt afraid and embarrassed, looking left and right at all the passersby and onlookers around her.
“What’s the matter?”
Her owner noticed them. He left the dabbling customer he was arguing with and approached them instead.
Raising his voice, the merchant called her, “Natir? What are you doing holding that child? Put her down and take off your dress. Come on.”
Natir trembled as she put Aina down, the girl’s back towards her. She whispered into her ear in a shaken voice, “Stay here.”
Aina tried to turn around but Natir forced her still.
“No, don’t move. Stay like this until I tell you, okay?”
“Why, hello there, sir,” the merchant said. “I see you’ve got an eye for the good ones. She’s an excellent choice! See for yourself: a true beauty, no scars, no punctures or deformations. She’s like a fresh flower. Just look at this sweet face—”
He interrupted, asking Natir as she undressed, “Who’s the father?”
His question brought a bitter taste to her mouth. As she bent down and slowly took her feet out of the dress one at a time, she answered in a small voice, “No father.”
“You have others?”
She straightened up, face down and arms wrapped over her nude body.
“No. Just one more, but he didn’t make it.”
“Morana took him. He was a couple of fortnights old and it was a very cold winter. He got sick and died.”
The merchant intoned, “How unfortunate. Truly unfortunate. But he is in Morana’s care now.” He turned to the customer. “See? What did I tell you? She’s an example of good health, in the prime of her years and an excellent breeder. Not one stillbirth. So, are you interested?”
The man took a step, removed her hands and roughly turned her from side to side, looking for her tribal tattoo.
“Where is it? What tribe is she from?”
“Answer the gentleman’s question. Don’t be shy.”
“I’m an Attee,” Natir said.
“Never heard of them.”
“We’re a small clan of the Alauni tribe, west of the great river, sir.”
He doubted her answer. “And the Alauni stopped tattooing their mark nowadays? What, do they paint it on instead?”
“No. It’s the same. I just, I wasn’t celebrated yet, because—”
He interrupted, “Enough. I think I’ve got it already.”
“No, sir, it’s not like that, I just never had the chance to—”
“Of course no tribe will put their mark on the likes of you. What was I thinking? Now turn around. Turn around, I said.”
He shoved her, back towards him, before he grabbed the back of her neck and made her bend over.
With her hands behind the small of her back, Natir, fighting the urge to cry, forced herself to remain still as the man ran his hands over every curve of her body, groping her intimate parts and checking her thoroughly.
The chuckles and filthy whispers filled her ears.
Natir no longer dared to imagine what leers she must be getting from the onlookers, and she wished in her heart the ground would swallow her up this very moment.
She almost jolted when his cold hands slid between her inner thighs. It made her hold her breath in and bite on her lip with bitterness.
She peeked a look at Aina, making sure she still had her back towards her.
When he let go, Natir quickly collected her dress and straightened up. She rubbed her forearms, pretending to feel cold, and put her dress back on in a hurry while he negotiated with the merchant.
“How much do you want for her?”
“I’ll sell them both to you for only fifteen silver quinars.”
The buyer raised his voice, “For a tribeless whore who doesn’t even know who fathered her children? Are you nuts?”
“No such thing. She’s as innocent as a flower, I personally guarantee it.”
“She said it herself.”
“She’s just nervous. Her man died recently—that’s what she really meant. Tell him, my dear. Tell him.”
The buyer grabbed her by the jaw, pulled her in and hissed in her face. “Answer me, whore, who’s the father? But before you open that mouth, let me warn you—”
He nodded toward the merchant.
“—if you don’t lie for him, he’ll just whip you later, and he’ll do it softly not to bruise you. But if you do lie, and I end up buying you, then make no mistake about it, the truth will come out sooner or later, and when I find out that you did lie to me, I’ll rip that lying tongue out of your mouth and make you pee on it. Now, think carefully.” He let go. “Better just tell the truth.”
Natir felt her heart beating in her throat. She answered, “No father. But...but I wasn’t selling myself, either. I was—”
She turned her face away and covered her mouth as the tears gathered in her eyes.
“Well? Go on. Finish.”
Natir wiped her eyes and looked his way. “I was used to pay a debt.”
He sneered, “Same thing.” The buyer then turned to the merchant. “How is that any different from picking a streetwalker up on the road? I’ll give you five for her, and you keep the child.”
His words struck Natir like a punch to the head.
She stood there in an utter daze, senseless, watching the world move on without her while she remained frozen in time, unable to hear or understand a thing of what was going on around her anymore.
Her eyes darted everywhere. A dry leaf on the ground rolled slowly back and forth, toyed by a passing breeze ’till it got trampled under a passerby’s shoe. Two grown men in front of her argued about something her mind no longer had a grasp of, their arms raised in the air and their lips moved without a sound. People walked by, stealing heedless looks her way. Amused youngsters sat on a nearby stone fence, snickering and whispering among themselves, watching her.
Before she knew what had happened, the two men shook hands as they worked out a deal. It was only when the buyer grabbed her arm and told her to come with him that her senses returned.
“NOOO!” she screamed with all her voice so suddenly that it startled them all.
She quickly dropped to her knees and grabbed the buyer’s hand.
“No, please, please, my child.” She pulled Aina in with her other hand. “My child. Aina. Please let me keep her. Please.”
“Are you deaf?” He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her up, roaring, “I told you to move.”
The merchant had already reached in to take Aina. “Let go, she’s not yours anymore.”
She panicked, “NO.”
“Move it, stupid.”
She held firmly to Aina and screamed even louder as the two men cursed and wrestled with her arms until the merchant was able to free Aina. He pulled the crying child out of Natir’s reach.
Natir screamed Aina’s name and scrambled to take her back. The man who bought her suddenly slapped her face, sending her spinning to the ground.
He yelled at the merchant, “What is this? What are you selling me?”
“All women are like this, we all know it. Just rough her up a little overnight and she will have her mind back before morning. They need it.”
Aina’s cries filled the air.
Natir crawled in the dirt on her arms and knees. She held to the buyer’s leg, begging and crying and kissing his hand.
“Please, please, anything but this. I’m yours, do anything you want with me, take whatever you want, take my arms, take my lungs, my life—just not Aina. Please let me keep her, I beg you, I beg you.”
“What nonsense are you blubbering, you mindless cunt? Let go of my leg and move out already.”
He pulled her head back sharply, ripping strands of hair from her scalp, but she held firmly to him, raving like a mad woman.
The man handled her even more harshly, he shook her head, beat her with the back of his hand, and stamped his leg, trying to shake her off.
“Are you stupid? I’m not paying a quinar for your little whore!”
He grabbed her hair and managed to pull her to her feet. He then slammed his fist into her belly.
The air whooshed out of her lungs as the punch knocked her feet out from under her and sent Natir rolling on the ground twelve feet away.
“Had enough? Now get up and move it.”
Natir coughed and writhed in pain as she lay on her side with her hands on her belly. Aina’s cries were all she could hear. Despite the pain, she crawled back to him, wrapped her arms around his leg again. Crying and kissing his knee. “Please, please, anything, I beg you, please, kill me instead of this—”
“You haven’t learned yet?”
The man raised his hand to hit her again when, suddenly, something hit his face.
It fell in front of Natir.
Her vision blurry, Natir wiped her watery eyes to confirm what she thought she had seen.
It was a coin! A silver quinar, right there on the ground.
“Alfred?” the buyer hissed at the man who threw the coin at him. “What is this?”
Natir looked up, her chest heaving in and out with spasms like hiccups. Her heart throbbed with both fear and hope.
Just a stone’s throw away stood a man chewing on a strip of dried meat, flocked by two gruff-looking friends and peering her way with an amused, twisted smirk.
His gaze frightened her.
For the kind of a life she had, Natir had come across many cruel men. Some were quite unsafe. She had known to be very careful around them, but never before had she met a man who gave her such a malignant feeling at first glance.
He was tall, well-built and looked to be in his late thirties. His face was hard and cruel, his eyes cold and mirthless like a criminal’s. He had a short red beard, and the hair atop his head was braided to the back with either side shaved bald.
Alfred shrugged and said humorously, “Just buy the child, too, and get it done with. You’re making a scene. A very loud one.”
“I don’t need a loan from you.”
Alfred came closer. “I understand that you’re stupid, Cahal, but even you should know better than to separate a chick from her mother—” He grabbed the coin with one hand and Natir’s hand with the other. She was still sobbing and shaking from the hysteria as he pulled her up to her feet. “The chicken will keep clucking all night long,” he said, wiping her tears off, “and then none of us will get any sleep.”
“I told you, I don’t need—”
He forced the coin into Cahal’s hand. “It’s not a loan. It’s for my own peace of mind. But if you won’t do as I say then I’ll have to buy the little one myself. And then I’ll beat you for it.”
“You want me to feed her!”
Alfred leaned even closer and spat viciously in his face, “Now you’re really asking for that beating.”
Alfred then walked to the merchant where he took Aina from him, carried her in his arm and put the strip of dried meat he had into her hand.
“Hey! It’s all right, it’s all right. Here you go, beautiful… It’s okay, you can take it. No more crying now, okay?”
Aina nodded, sniffling. She wiped her runny nose with her little fist and put the food in her mouth.
“Good girl. Is it good?”
She nodded again.
“You like it?”
“I have more. So much more. As many as the leaves on that tree. You see it? That’s a lot. It will hurt my stomach before I can eat it all. And I don’t want my stomach to hurt, so I’ll tell you what,” he put her down, knelt to her level and pinched her nose, “I’ll share it with you. Whenever you feel hungry, you can come to my house and help me eat it, okay?”
She nodded back.
“Good girl.” Alfred patted her head and turned her by her shoulders, directing her towards Natir. “Now, go to Mommy.”
Aina ran to Natir, who quickly took her in her arms and showered her small face with kisses as she sobbed.
Alfred left right away but then he spun on his heel, walking backwards, and raised his arms to his sides, joking, “Her stomach is smaller than my fist!”
Still shaken by all that had happened and unable to take it in all at once, all that Natir could do was watch with a heaving chest as Alfred walked away.
Her gaze fell on the woman from the wagon who was still standing in line, smirking.
She flashed Natir a wink just before the merchant gave her a push and ordered her back into the wagon.