“I bet it’s been a while since you last bathed,” said Joyce, Cahal’s slave, as she washed Natir’s hair.
“A while, yes,” Natir answered lifelessly. “About a fortnight, I think.”
“That’s how long it’s been since the merchants allowed us to bathe in a stream. It became too cold after that.”
“Tell me about it! Traveling really is the worst part—”
Joyce was a very slim-built woman in her late twenties with short auburn hair. She wasn’t sick, but she looked far from healthy. Her skin was pale and her face told of tiredness and misery.
The two of them were in a small space next to Cahal’s hut where a fragile fence made of tree branches was erected. The branches didn’t protect them from the wind, but they provide some privacy when bathing.
Natir sat bare in a shallow bucket half-filled with mild water as she got prepared for the first taking.
Her spirit was down. Her hopes to reach the rich and warm south before getting sold had been crushed, and she was still in shock from the incident earlier. Chatter was the last thing Natir wanted right now, but she could not escape Joyce’s nuisance.
“Well, at least it’s over now,” Joyce continued. “You’re very lucky, you know. You got yourself a very fair master.”
A bitter chuckle burst from Natir’s mouth. She shook her head and bit her fist, fighting the urge to cry.
“Nothing.” She looked over her shoulder at Joyce kneeling behind her. “Joyce, he was going to let my child be taken from me. And you’re calling it fair?”
“It was business. He was buying what he could afford.”
Natir dropped her head and muttered in defeat and self-pity, “Fair…? How can something like that ever be fair? What god would sanction such a thing?”
“The gods take loved ones all the time.”
Joyce huffed, “You mustn’t talk like this.”
“For a moment back there, I thought my heart was going to burst.”
“Look, Natir, you’re taking it too far and mixing things up. What happened doesn’t mean he’s an unjust person. These are two completely different things. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? Serve him well, and you’ll be treated fairly in return.”
Natir nodded lifelessly.
Joyce resumed, “Besides, he let you keep her in the end, didn’t he?”
“No, someone else made him do it. A man called Alfred.”
Joyce froze with shock.
She replied, working faster on washing Natir’s back, “Forget it. Forget everything that happened in the market. It’s all in the past now and it’s not our place to talk about what free men do.”
“Who is he?”
Joyce got up, grabbed Natir’s jaw and forced the other woman’s face towards her.
“I said, forget it ever happened,” she hissed. “You stay away from Alfred, no matter what. Don’t you even mention his name in Cahal’s house. Understand? You’re Cahal’s now. That’s all that matters.”
“What? Why are you angry?”
“I’m not. It’s you who’s talking nonsense.” She threw her rag at Natir’s face. “Know your place. I’m not getting in trouble because of you.”
Joyce headed to where a pot of boiling water and fresh rags were being kept, intending to get a new one.
Baffled by the sudden change in Joyce’s demeanor, Natir quickly knelt forward and reached out for her, “Wait—”
She grabbed at Joyce from behind, causing Joyce’s old dress to rip, revealing gruesome scars on her back.
The women both froze.
With tears welling in her eyes, Joyce looked back at Natir.
“I—” Natir lost her voice.
Joyce gently pried Natir’s hand off of her and went to soak a rag in the hot water, but she suddenly seemed disoriented and unsure of what she was doing.
“He...he is the worst master anyone can possibly have,” she said brokenly. “You wouldn’t wish someone like him on your enemies… He’s violent. Cruel. Drunk. His tongue is wormwood. He gambles with the last coin he has and buys slaves he can’t afford. Is that what you wanted to hear? Does that make you happy?”
Natir slowly sat back down in the water. “I’m, I’m sorry.”
“There was another woman… When he first bought me, she told me the same lies that I just told you about—”
Joyce stopped to pull herself together. She wiped a tear off her face and resumed, chuckling bitterly, “About how fair he is! What a great man he is! And how lucky I really am. It didn’t take me long before I figured out the truth, and for a long time I kept asking myself why she did it. What...what must have been on her mind to pull such a cruel joke on me? Then I realized that she was giving me an illusion. A hope, perhaps? I don’t know what, but she was giving me something to hold on to. Something to keep me going until I got through the hardest part and could get used to the nightmare… I’m grateful for what she did now. Her little trick is what kept me alive.”
“What happened to her?”
With her back to Natir, Joyce squeezed water from the rag and shrugged. “He got carried away one night. It happens… We gave her a decent cremation. What more can a slave hope for?”
She knelt behind Natir, washing her back. “But you go ahead with whatever works for you.”
Natir held her silence for a time. She spaced out, watching her feet in the murky water with gloom on her face.
Finally, she asked in a small voice, “Joyce. Please tell me what I need to know.”
* * *
After drying herself, Natir followed Joyce into the house.
The single-floor round house with a thatched roof was hardly the best the village had to offer. The inside was just a small space with a single mattress made from woolen sheets stuffed with straw. There were a few jars and jugs, everyday living tools hung on the walls, and cheese stomach-sacks hung from racks.
Joyce sat on the floor, holding Aina. Natir sat next to them and spread her arms out for Aina, who moved into her lap.
Aina was tired and her motions slow, but she was not quite ready to fall asleep yet.
Natir peeked at her new fellow slave out of the corner of her eye.
The tattoos Joyce had, which were all personal marks without a single recognizable tribal tattoo, were enough to tell the story of an unlucky woman who was either born into slavery or became one before she first bled and must have exchanged hands quite frequently.
With such similarities in their pasts, Natir felt empathy towards the other woman.
Joyce noticed her staring. “What?”
She asked quietly, “Is he going to brand us, Aina and me?”
Joyce rubbed the side of her neck where a big tattoo was.
“That’s up to him. If he decides to keep you, then he probably will. If not, then what’s the point?” She nodded at Natir. “I’m surprised you don’t have any.”
Natir shrugged. “I was never celebrated. Then, where I ended up at, they never bothered to brand any of the women. The mark of that kind of place can only lower a slave’s value, and we were not going to go anywhere, anyway.”
“True. The fewer marks a slave carries, the more they are worth… Well, I’ve been with him for a few years and he’s yet to do that, so, I don’t know. Perhaps it would be smart not to ask about it.”
“But, just so that you know, he’ll wait until morning before he cuts your hair.” There was no reaction from Natir. “Glad to know it won’t be a problem.”
“Will we all sleep here?” Natir asked worriedly.
Joyce shrugged. Natir looked away and embraced Aina.
Joyce watched them for a time. She then blew a breath, grabbed a cup and headed to a large jug nearby.
“We shouldn’t be doing this, but just this once…” She returned after filling the cup with wine and nodded at Aina. “Here. Give it to Aina.”
“What? No. She’s only four. I’m not giving my daughter—”
“It’s not her I’m doing this for. It’s for you,” she interrupted. “We both know what it’s like. First time is always something, isn’t it? So, give her this and she will fall asleep fast. It will make what’s coming all the easier on you. But if you’d rather not, then I’ll just treat myself. Either way, you will keep quiet about this. After all, it’s only because of you that I poured it, and he doesn’t like anyone touching his precious drink… Don’t worry about the scent, this whole place will smell like a tavern when he returns.”
Natir needed a moment to consider the offer. She accepted the cup and told Aina to drink it.
Aina didn’t like the taste. After a couple of sips, she started resisting.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, that’s enough,” Natir whispered.
Joyce took a small sip and sat down. She then offered the cup to Natir. “We’ll share the rest.”
Natir drank some as well.
“He’ll be back soon. He’ll be drunk, so you don’t need to put any effort to impress him or anything. Just let him do as he wants, and it will all be all right.”
“Will it really?”
“What else can I say?”
Natir spaced out, the incident with Alfred earlier still on her mind. She asked as they continued to pass the cup between them, “That man you told me not to speak of—”
Joyce rolled her eyes.
“I just, I don’t know anything about this place. These people.”
“Well, I guess I did warn you wrong. It only made you curious.” She took a sip and resumed, “They are half-brothers, Cahal and Alfred, but they hate each other’s guts.”
“Same old story repeating itself everywhere. It’s from a time before I ended up here… Cahal is the eldest brother. He was supposed to become their earl, I heard, but Alfred is the one who got everyone’s support and took it from him… Cahal refused to take it lying down, so he gathered what few friends he had left and caused some trouble. In the end, his little gamble failed miserably, but Alfred didn’t kill him. He humiliated him instead and exiled his sons and daughter. So, there you have it, one brother ended up with everything, the other with nothing. End of story.”
“He’s their earl?”
“He didn’t do what he did for your sake,” Joyce warned with a glare. “Trust me, if there’s one person I can name who’s worse than Cahal, it is Alfred. He’s a dangerous man. A mad man. And he wouldn’t give a fuck if both of you were about to be fed to the dogs, so don’t you start having any fantasies. He was just using you to rub it in Cahal’s face again, that’s all.”
Natir’s face fell, and she asked, “I didn’t see that many fields or cattle. What are we supposed to do here? What do these people live on?”
“They raid others.”
The statement alarmed Natir.
Joyce continued, “A horde of thieves, rapists and bandits are what these people really are. Filth of the earth. You’d find more honor in a heap of goats’ shit than in this disgusting place. My gods, how I wish to see them hanged, every last one of them… They raid other villages for a living. Most of the time they just extort payments for protection and things go smoothly, but there are times when it gets ugly. You’ll know when it happens, you’ll see things that will bring tears to your eyes. Anyway, what do we care? As for what we do, well… You already know, don’t you?”
They were looking into each other’s eyes when they heard Cahal coming.
He was drunk like Joyce had said, mumbling something to himself. He closed the door behind him, headed to the bed and began undressing.
Natir looked at her daughter, who had fallen asleep.
Joyce signaled her to hand Aina over, which Natir did before she went and stood at the center of the room.
She peeked over her shoulder and saw that Joyce held Aina close and lay down to sleep, her back towards them and her body concealing Aina entirely.
Natir took a deep breath and began taking her dress off. She froze as she couldn’t force herself to do it and ended up hugging herself instead, staring away with her dress half pulled down.
Cahal turned around and eyed her up and down, impatient that she hadn’t stripped yet. He grabbed her upper arm and threw her on the mattress.
The fall hurt her, but she glued her lips together not to make a sound and risk waking Aina.
The stench of alcohol wafted from him and filled the air around her with a strong, piss-like odor so unbearable that it caused her to feel nauseated.
Natir turned to lay on her back and tried to fake a smile, but he rolled her over instead. She just let him do as he wanted as he positioned her on all fours and kneeled behind her.
She shut her eyes, tightened her grip on the sheets and bit on her lip, preparing herself.
* * *
In the morning, Natir woke up completely startled by a rough motion as Cahal rolled her over, face-down.
She felt him moving up from behind. Her eyes rolled fearfully as she tried to look back, but he pushed her shoulder forward, mashing her face into the mattress when she tried to turn.
Morning-drowsed and still trying to make sense out of things, Natir submitted to his will and tried to recall what had happened the day before, while Cahal pulled her legs wider apart, lazily positioning himself over her bare back.
She almost gasped when she remembered where Aina was and quickly looked to the side. She saw that Joyce still lay there, pretending to be asleep, with Aina probably in her arms.
It gave her much relief.
Natir kept her lips shut, drew her palms under her cheek and lay still underneath him as he worked on her from behind.
Her heart sank and she felt an incredible fear nesting in her chest; it was his sloth that frightened her more than anything. He was not in the mood for exercise so early in the morning and was taking his sweet time enjoying her.
This confidence he had that he could do anything he wanted to her, the kind of confidence one can only have when he handles property, had unveiled an ugly sight to her eyes.
Never, in all her years a slave, had her reality been as clear as it was now: She was an animal that he owned, exactly the same as the goats she had seen outside. Her objection to anything was something he wouldn’t even dream of.
His weight was crushing her, and his motions were getting more violent. His head was right over hers, groaning straight into her ear with animalistic pleasure.
Natir shut her eyes bitterly as his breathing grew heavier and he crushed her against the mattress, pounding her harder the closer he became.
He suddenly grabbed her hair and jerked her head back sharply. It hurt so much that she barely restrained herself in time not to scream while he groaned delightedly in her ear.
Just as lazy, he let go of her and rolled on his back, panting for air.
Natir took the chance to secretly wipe the tears from her eyes.
An ugly, strong scent came out of nowhere, disgusting Natir so much that she threw up in her mouth. She was certain that the scent wasn’t there just a moment ago, but it was now all that she could think of.
Natir was disgusted to the bone.
She was disgusted from him, disgusted from what had happened, from this place, from this world, and from herself, even. She felt so tainted she wished to just die.
“Get my clothes.”
She obeyed. She got on her knees and collected his clothes for him from the floor.
Cahal asked as he dressed, “What was your name again?”
“Natir, there’s a knife over there. Go get it.”
Still bare before him, she returned with the knife and stood still, waiting for him to finish dressing.
Her eyes settled on the knife, and soon her hand began to shake.
Fantasies of stabbing him in the back; fantasies of cutting his belly open and trampling on his gut; fantasies of slitting her own throat and dying smiling, knowing that she had deprived him of his joy and all the money he wasted on her; and fantasies of murdering the whole world, with that one little knife, all laughed in the back of her mind.
Cahal got up and approached her.
She silently offered him the knife.
He took it and pushed her down by the shoulder to kneel, he then stood behind her, grabbed locks of her hair and started sawing them off.
There was an ache in her heart so painful that she could barely contain.
Her lips trembled and tears gathered in her eyes as he worked on her hair. She was so scared that she didn’t even know how she forced the words out of her mouth.
“Please. May I—”
He stopped, waiting for her to finish.
She looked up at him over her shoulder and pleaded brokenly, “One strand… just one… may I please keep one strand?”
Cahal eyed her briefly then handed the knife over to her. “Fine.”
He headed out. “But keep it short. Slaves should not mistake themselves for real women.”
Still on her knees, fighting the sob rising in her throat as she stared down at her brown hair scattered all over the floor and the knife he had given her, Natir could no longer hold the bitter tears back.
Quietly, she sobbed in misery as she forced her hands to move, sawing off her hair with her own hands, finishing the work he left her with.